By Luke Hawley
There’s an E.L. Doctorow quote that I love: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
It’s a bit how I’ve felt writing for The Twelve every Sunday in Eastertide. But it’s also how I always feel about writing.
I’ve been working on a novel for a while—seven years this summer—and it’s nice to be reminded that part of writing is to just keep going. My first book was short stories and, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, If you can find the time, you can sit down in the morning, write a sentence, and the other sentences start attaching themselves to it and, voila, you’ve got a story.
But novels take more attention and time—things I’ve never been very good at managing. It’s my first real novel, so I’m cutting myself some slack (and hoping that the next one won’t take so long) and doing my best to learn along the way. And though I may not have a great gift for time and attention, I have found one character trait to be most helpful.
I am natural reteller.
And this is the secret of writing a novel (and it might be the secret of lots of other things too): Most of it happens in the retelling. You write a scene (tell a story) and then you see how it looks with other scenes. Then you retell it to fit. And you retell it again to fix up the rotten sentences. And you shift and shape the details to hone and focus all the right spots.
Of course, this is how most stories work—or the good ones anyway. You tell them and retell them and retell them and each time in the retelling, it’s not quite the same—there’s shaping and changing (and often inflating) going on.
I’m sure it can be an annoying characteristic, too. I have a friend who, for a while, was holding up two fingers every time I charged into a story he’d already heard. I say for a while because after a time, he gave up. I had worn him down in the retelling.
And think of my poor wife.
I only remember a couple of things from premarital counseling, but the one I come back to over and over (see the pattern here?) is the session when the therapist encouraged us to tell—and retell—our story. It’s advice that I took to heart—easy for a story reteller, maybe. I tell our kids how we fell in love. We tell each other how we fell in love. One of the short stories in my collection is more or less a retelling of how we fell in love.
And every time we tell it, it changes and shifts a bit. The further away we get from it, the fuzzier the details are, so we depend on remembering the essence of it.
So let me bring it back around to Eastertide. When I was first asked to write, I thought, What am I going to write about for six Sundays in a row? And all about Easter? And a couple of the Sundays, it didn’t come easily—it felt like a burden. But a couple times it was easy as breathing.
And this is the nature of telling and retelling. It has nothing to do with how well you tell it. Or how easy it is to tell. Or how hard. The important thing is that you tell—and retell—it.
Tell the story. Tell it when it’s easy. Tell it when it’s heartbreaking. Tell it when you can hardly believe it. Tell it and retell it and retell it and watch it stretch and grow and slip out from underneath you and come back epiphanic. Hone it, change it, inflate it. See it in a million different ways.
Just keep telling it.