A writer too sure of her material and destination can weaken her potential to discover new insights, ideas and connections as she writes. On its face, nonfiction seems more vulnerable to this than fiction and poetry. All three may begin with real-world events or memories, but fiction and poetry automatically release these events from the constraints of their original contexts. Even if the nonfiction writer, though, is playing at the edges of the genre or questioning the validity of factuality, she relies on the tension created by the strands of that factuality clinging to her words. This can prevent her from seeing new directions she might take, especially if she is writing narrative nonfiction such as memoir. Whether conscious of it or not, the writer may feel pressure to just retell events as faithfully and accurately as she can.

Faithfulness and accuracy are noble attributes, but a writer hardly wants them to quash his ability to invent and create. Nonfiction writers can gain much power by learning to be receptive to the nodes of eternal—or mythical—time their writing offers them. When we write nonfiction narrative such as memoir, after all, we are not merely writing about a single, isolated, temporal life but are attempting to show how that life is woven into history and the larger story of human dreaming and endeavor, is shaped by imagination, lies in relationship to other lives. In other words, we’re mythologizing that life, not in the weak sense of telling an untrue story but in the strong sense of telling a story that resonates with metaphor and symbol and aesthetic meaning.

At any point in our writing that larger range may suggest itself in connections to other lives or events, in metaphors that pop into our heads, in connotations contained within a word tugging at meanings we hadn’t considered. All these suggestions and hints might contain mythologizing tensions more potentially interesting and powerful than the tension we are developing chronologically.

An essay I am currently writing began with a conversation I had with a friend. We were walking in a city and noticed strange devices on an apartment building’s window ledges, which we realized were designed to keep pigeons away. My friend wondered why people devote so much effort to such a thing, noting that pigeons are “just birds.” The first draft of the essay was mostly a recapitulation of the conversation, with some reflection on modern people’s relationship to birds. When I returned to the essay some weeks later, however, and began rewriting, the phrase “just birds” struck me in a way it hadn’t before. Inside the phrase was an entirely different tension than I’d recognized—not the tension contained in “birds,” between humans and pigeons, but that contained in “just.” Is anything ever only another thing?

The question stopped me, then drove me to find out what a pigeon actually was—how it was scientifically defined, where it came from, how it got to this continent. Then I found myself thinking about my own history with pigeons, the ways in which my relationships with them have always been personal and complex and impossible to dismiss with a “just.” I had marveled at them as a child and hunted and made meals of them as a teenager. They were distinct forces and essences in my life, different from even such near relatives as doves. Such thinking continued, far afield from my original conception of the essay. I had been flung into an eternal moment, where my thoughts could go anywhere, where I no longer had to—or even could—stay with the temporal narrative that had started my writing.

The result was a longer and more complex essay than the original and, I will admit, one harder to manage and make coherent. When you recognize eternal moments, you are opening yourself up to the unexpected—to discovery, to surprise, to revelation coming to you out of the act of writing itself, the suggestions and hints and proddings contained in the words you are using and the sentences you are shaping. The singular and small event that began my essay was loosed by my recognition of the tension contained in “just” into a vaster and more timeless world. I broke from my confinement in the chronology of the original story. I discovered that my relationship to pigeons was personal and idiosyncratic yet also part of a longer history.

Our conceptions when we begin writing are narrower than we realize simply because our minds are unable to encompass the possibilities the act of creation spins out. We need to develop sensitivity to those possibilities and train ourselves to recognize their incipient shapes within our words. If we move only forward and are too intent on our original destination, we can ignore them as easily as we ignore possible interesting side roads when we’re speeding down the freeway. We need a sense of where we are going when we write, yet we also need to let the going, the writing itself, prod us into going somewhere else. Writing invents itself out of the tension between our need to move forward in the temporal time of our works and our need to recognize the urgings of the eternal moments contained in the words we use.

What kinds of habits might a writer develop in order to make herself more likely to recognize the call of eternal time unfolding from out of the temporal time of a story? I suggest these:

  • Write close to the grindstone. When sharpening something, there is a moment when the edge of the blade has grown so fine it will not reflect. Light has been honed away. You have to look often and closely if you are going to catch the moment when it happens. If you write with this kind of close, refined attention to your own words, not looking for the way they are shaping the end of the story but instead trying to understand what the word or phrase you wrote right now bears within it, you will find yourself writing with a greater sense of wonder and disturbance and of being-on-the-cusp-of: Why did I write that? What made me choose that metaphor or word? What does it contain? What might it mean that I haven’t yet recognized?
  • Listen to rhythm and write from it. When you let language become rhythmic, you are necessarily responding to its right-now elements. Your concern is for how the words you are producing fit with the words that came immediately before and how they call forth words that might come immediately after. You think less about their meaning relative to your destination, and more about whether the words work in the short term. Your words become more active agents, more urgent and urging, not just tools you’re using to shape what you think but tools that contribute to that thinking.
  • Retype. Retyping puts you in contact with your language in a way that word processing doesn’t. You have to actually reproduce the language. That remaking slows you down and creates conditions more conducive to wondering anew what the words suggest. Word processing contains an unconscious message that what has been written has more authority than what could be written. It tends to fossilize precedent. It makes it more likely that a writer will tinker with and fix a draft rather than re-invent it. Retyping, on the other hand, creates a radical equality between what you have written and what you might write. It keeps you closer to your work (the grindstone) and it reinforces your sense of rhythm. It opens up the end of each sentence to new recognitions and maintains in your mind the message that those new recognitions are as valid and true and within-reach as anything previously written, that the piece remains unformed and un-invented until you have actively chosen to stop inventing it.

In general, try to develop a sense that what you are writing contains meaning you haven’t anticipated. Think of each word as a trapdoor over a rabbit hole containing eternal moments of newness and strangeness. You’re walking on these doors. The catch might hold so that you step forward into your familiar, predicted world. But if you stand on that word a little longer, it might give way, and there you are, dropping vertically instead of walking horizontally—eternally instead of chronologically. Down there is where the Red Queen lives. She can be very weird, and she can drive you crazy and make you work very hard at trying to figure out what she means, but she’s always interesting, and she certainly has things to say.

Kent Meyers has written a memoir, a book of short fiction, and three novels, two of which have been listed as New York Times Notable Books. His work has won numerous awards, including a Society of Midland Authors award and a High Plains Book award. Meyers has published fiction and essays in various literary journals and magazines, including Harper’s and several times in The Georgia Review. He lives in Spearfish, South Dakota, and teaches in Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop.

A different form of this essay originally appeared in Soundings, the journal of the Rainier Writing Workshop.