I went for a run yesterday morning. There is nothing newsworthy about this; I go for a run most days. Usually I run in Colorado, where the morning air is cool and crisp and the early morning sky is clear and blue. Now I am in Mississippi, and the sky is blue enough but not the same kind of blue you see in Colorado. Here, there is a haziness to the air and the morning light is diffuse and dappled. It is warmer here, and humid. I am dripping wet before I complete the first mile. I run on the street, because there are no sidewalks in the suburban neighborhood where my parents live. The dappled light means I don’t see as far or as clearly as I do in Colorado. I don’t see the divot in the road or the baby’s lost pacifier or the fast food ketchup packet or the stray cat or even the car at the stop sign until I am right upon them. Sunlight in Mississippi obscures and reveals. It dapples the ground and casts long shadows. It’s a hazy sort of light, until it isn’t, because occasionally the sun will break through and turn the sky a blinding white, which does not make it any easier to see the road ahead of you.
Writing, for me, is like jogging through the Mississippi morning light. I’m not the sort of writer who outlines or plots the story in advance. I’m the sort of writer who discovers the story as she goes along. I fought this for a while. I’m a plotter in every other aspect of my life. Whether I’m planning a vacation or a dinner party or a list of chores, I think hard about the best way to do things. I avoid wasted steps. I figure out the best route to travel and the best order to tackle tasks. My mother-in-law calls me an efficiency expert. My husband says I get more done before ten in the morning than most people do in a solid day. When it comes to writing, though, I’m constantly doubling back and retracing my steps to discover where the story goes. There’s nothing efficient about it.
The light is not something I thought about when I was growing up in Mississippi. I didn’t realize then that things like humidity and altitude and certain trees could affect the light so dramatically. I didn’t know that the quality of sunlight would be different in Colorado or in Paris or in Sydney, Australia, but it is. And it never fails to impress me, this variety of light. It’s the same sun, after all. Colorado sunlight is occasionally white and blinding, but it’s a clearer sort of light overall. In Colorado, you can usually see the buckled sidewalk in time to avoid tripping. You can see the the discarded soda can in the gutter before you kick it or run over it with your bicycle. There aren’t so many surprises in Colorado.
Maybe this is yet one more reason I write about Mississippi. It continues to startle me with its light and its shadows, with produce workers who call me “darling” when I ask where to find the garlic, with bank tellers who look at my ID and ask when I’m gonna “get real and move home,” with old friends who show up whenever I’m in town and continue the conversation we’ve been having for thirty years. Somehow it manages to be both familiar and surprising. I like that about Mississippi.
When I’m writing, I’ll often follow the thread of an idea for a long time before I realize it’s not a thread with any substance. I’ve abandoned scenes and characters after writing fifty pages or more. It isn’t easy, but it is often necessary. Usually this happens when I grow bored with the story. The plot has become predictable. The characters aren’t saying anything that makes me smile. When I get to a point where I am no longer surprised by the story, I know no one else will be surprised either. And, at this revelation, I unravel the thread to the last point where I felt a sense of wonder with the story and I start again. It can be a slog. It is slow moving and mostly dark as I make my way forward again. It would be more efficient to follow an outline or a map, but writing stories isn’t about efficiency. It’s about discovery and surprise and ideas that pop up from the shadows. I welcome the moments when the light shifts and I can see just far enough to keep me curious, but not so far that I lose all interest in where I’m going. Ultimately, I suppose I live my day-to-day life under the influence of the Colorado sun, but I write by the light of Mississippi.
It works for me.