The act of writing is a fine balance between hard work and inspiration. Personally I lean towards the worker-bee end of this spectrum and have spent many years slogging away, chained to my desk while putting in the necessary hours with dogged persistence. There have been spells of rebellion when I’ve surrendered to the seduction of an inspiration which has usually taken me over the top, requiring ruthless editing on the return to worker-bee mode.
In recent years I have found my balance as a writer by crab-walking away from these two extremes to place myself somewhere apparently quite different, but ironically in balance. The essence of this exercise is that I catch myself by surprise. I will tell you a story.
Several years ago I travelled to Cuba, laptop in hand, for a three-month stay. My intention was to write a novel I had been researching for several years, a dark accumulation within me. The novel was set in WW II Europe and it dealt with a family whose absent father was interned during the war as a fascist.
I sat on the patio shuffling through papers and notebooks, listening to roosters crowing and pigs snorting nearby, frustration building in me as I tried to place myself under the dark cloud of Europe while all I wanted to do was jump on my bicycle and cruise the streets of Baracoa.
After a week I shoved my research papers back into my briefcase and began writing stories about the life going on around me – about my Cuban friends and their daily adventures, and about my own struggle to understand their extraordinary culture.
Cuba, like much of Latin America and the Caribbean, is a surrealistic place where North Americans and Europeans are confounded by the absence of that familiar logic which enables us to function smoothly. Typically I hit the wall half way through my annual stay in Cuba, then I can surrender and fully enter the Cuban reality.
Thus evolved my collection of Cuban stories – In the Embrace of the Alligator – Cubans call their island ‘el caíman’ – the alligator. I did not intend to publish a collection of stories about Cuba. I began to write those stories out of desperation because I have to write. That is how I make sense of the world. The stories crept up on me, demanding to be written and shared.
Intention is a great and necessary thing — it gives direction — but enslavement to it is death. Everything must break away from its origins in order to achieve full potential. What I’m talking about is letting go of control in order to let the characters breathe, to let the story live.
I believe that most characters are emanations of the writer, and that there is a mystery which requires us to stand aside and wait to be surprised, challenged, and enlightened by our own creations. Writing at its best is a journey of discovery, and while the writer must be in control she must hold the reins very loosely and be prepared to let the alligator take her deep, to the limits of her lung capacity, with trust that she will surface to rewrite and edit what she has learned, and to cruise the streets once more for inspiration.
Paula’s note: Amanda Hale is the author of three novels, a collection of stories, and a novella. She is also a poet, screenwriter, and has recently written a libretto. Amanda divides her time between Hornby Island, Toronto, and Cuba. To find out more visit www.amandahale.com.