One of Flannery O’Connor’s most popular statements goes, “I have to write to discover what I am doing. …I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say.” The more popular paraphrase is a little easier to parse. “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Novel writing is the process of identifying and moving through the unknown. To write a novel, you navigate a multiverse.
According to the multiverse hypothesis, the universe we experience is only one part of the multiverse: an infinite set of parallel universes separated by exercised chance or choice.
A rolled die has the possibility of landing on any of six numbers. Perhaps in our universe it lands on a one. In a different universe, it lands on a two. In another, three, and so on. Every possible variation occurs somewhere within the multiverse.
I have found the process of writing a novel harmonizes with the multiverse hypothesis. As I generate pages and revise them, different versions of the story become known. One choice differs, and a new version of characters, events, setting, plot, and world unfold. But I’m not the god of the multiverse. I’m an explorer with the ability to jump dimensions and discover these alternate realities. Everything about the story already exists in potentiality. The writer just lives it, then writes it down.
This all sounds rather blissful. If only.
The unknown story branches off in every possible direction. As one direction becomes defined, more unknown spawns further on the horizon. I tend to be so preoccupied with new discoveries that I don’t notice the new unknowns that have come along, too. I tinker among the things I know without considering what I still need to find out.
This is very typical of my writing process. Dazedly unaware of the things I don’t know, without the awareness necessary to push myself past into the unknown. I don’t notice that I have entered an unstable version of my story’s universe. I keep writing. I spend time, energy, and pages on this structurally unsound universe.
It doesn’t work. Places I thought there would be a door, there are only walls. Characters refuse to behave the way I thought they would. Their actions are inconsistent. Consequences feel wrong. The universe begins to crumble out from under me. That, I notice. The crumbling, the inability to move forward, or the sensation that, even though I could move on, something is off. Something I can’t see is sabotaging the work.
Time to backtrack, rewrite, revise.
For me, revision tends to feel like flailing in those foam pits they have at gymnasiums. Lots of energy expended, few visual results. Discouragement comes easy when entire chapters and characters suddenly become superfluous.
Again, Flannery O’Connor wrote,
Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.
During the years I’ve been exploring this novel, many different universes have branched off from the original. I can’t count them. I don’t know how. Parts overlap, some were deleted, and some I’ve only imagined and never written down. Other universes were shallow, ill conceived, and forgotten. They sloughed off like dead skin. Some were more difficult to let go.
But the multiverse functions as a whole. Just because we happen to be experiencing a certain universe doesn’t make it superior to the others we never experience. Without them, our universe wouldn’t exist. All possibilities must be accounted for. One part isn’t more important than another.
And so, like Flannery, I have to trust that no work is wasted. Not even the time and resources I used up exploring tangential universes. Revision brings a story closer to its best form. Learning what is wrong for a story can be nearly as helpful as learning what is right. But I’m convinced that no one (or very, very few) arrive confidently at a “right” place when writing a novel. We move closer by degrees, by inches, by the occasional step and rare leap. Every now and then, a revised page, scene, chapter, feels improved, more right. Maybe not perfect, but closer to the story it should be, the one it wants to be.
The universes I abandon help me determine what the story is not. Their sum guides me toward the universe I am hunting for. All the versions I discarded still exist in the multiverse of the story. If I look through the black lines of text into the white space, I can still see them. My readers won’t. But the universe they page through will be held together on all sides by its invisible, infinite multiverse.