When I placed my fingers on the keyboard to begin the first draft of Boundaries, Ben Snow, the lawyer, was about to meet Sydney Bouquet, the client, under accidental circumstances. I did not know he would become a loner, she a formidable client. As he sat at a restaurant window watching her on the sidewalk, I knew him only from his reflections about his bad day at the office. About her I knew only that she was to grow from memories of two women, one I met in similar circumstances, the other a former client from my days practicing law. Ben was a blank slate waiting for colors, Sydney a plainspoken, razor-sharp woman in the midst of a great struggle, against a stacked deck, to regain custody of her son. One a skeleton waiting for flesh, the other waiting to be alchemized from two sources into a single character who would grow into someone not much like either one. All by following my nose.
Now that I knew a bit about them, I wanted to find a trail out of the restaurant. Wonder, curiosity, and imagination were my scouts. After the chance encounter, fabricated on the spot, and the song and dance about whether they would see each other again, I decided to follow Ben home. Suddenly I was in Tyee City, a lonely strip of eleven houses along a windy coastal road outside of town. Only his house had a second story, a turret room windowed all around with just enough space for a queen-sized bed. A made-up house in a real place, remote, perfect for a man who, by the time I got him home, became a loner preferring to look at life from a distance. Already he had become very intelligent but lacking in self-confidence in spite of a history of success in his work. And I saw that Sydney would be a great challenge for him.
A writer of fiction can only begin to know his characters as they begin to know each other. As in real life, they learn this gradually over time. But a writer must also find a seed of conflict. In that first session of that first draft, I hit upon the problem. Ben would withhold his true identify. There it was, fraught with possibility. Ahh, I thought, this trail is worth following. More layers of possibility began to grow like coral on a reef. Ben and Sydney would get themselves into trouble because their shared passion for the case. It would push them across – you guessed it – boundaries. They would grow a penchant for ethical violations in the decisions they would make in pursuit of Sydney’s reunion with her eight-year-old son. Some they would violate together, others by acting without the knowledge of the other. New obstacles kept arriving for them. It got quite messy, fraught with unpleasant consequences. They would need to find a path out. So would I. We were on the trail together.
Writing can be as much a vicarious experience for the writer as it is for his readers, especially if he doesn’t plan too much in advance. That’s what makes him the first reader. Just like driving your car along a winding, lane-less country road you’ve not driven before, writing the first draft of a story can be a better ride – at least for this writer – when he doesn’t see more of its arc than a night driver can see with his headlights.
We are all storytellers. Telling and embellishing stories is an archetype of the human mind, embedded in our DNA. It’s quite different – and for this writer/reader more satisfying – than navigating life using the tools of exposition. With our stories we scratch our itches, get our hands around what has happened to us, and sometimes find greater repose for the experiences and urges that occupy our minds. Someday you might find yourself putting yours on paper, too, enjoying acts of creation rising from your experience, from wonder and imagination, and from the delightful alchemy that happens when you throw them into a single pot of stew.
The biggest difference between you and writers (those of you who aren’t one) is that writers write them. When you think about responding to this post, you might prefer to think and talk about them. Either way, let us know your thoughts, questions, and opinions. Let’s take this anywhere it wants to go.