“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
~ E.L. Doctorow
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow has enjoyed working in various roles in the literary world in the United States. As an author, he is known internationally for his works in the genre of historical fiction. I remember that as a high school student, I was totally engrossed in historical fiction and my favourite author was Leon Uris. Doctorow read scripts for a movie company, edited books and served as editor-in-chief. He left the publishing world in 1969 and began his own writing career spanning over thirty years.
I found his opening analogy comparing writing a novel and driving a car at night, refreshingly different. I appreciated the simplicity of his comparison – he didn’t go into a detailed explanation or description about what writing a novel is about. He used an analogy that writers who have driven cars at night will readily understand and appreciate.
Doctorow points out, quite accurately, that a driver at night can see only as far ahead as his headlights will allow. Beyond that point, is the great unknown! It is a black void that might hide danger – especially when one is travelling at highway speeds. The driver needs to be focused because at those speeds you are actually outrunning your headlights – meaning you’ll never be able to stop the car in time if you come upon a barrier of any kind.
This begs the question, is writing a novel inherently dangerous? Offhand, I’d say no, but the writer needs to stay focused in the same way as the driver. The terrain that you see illuminated by your headlights is like the plan or outline of the novel that the writer has created. Some writers spend a long time crafting detailed outlines that trace the development of the main and sub-plots along with character sketches of their characters. Other writers have simpler, less detailed plans. Regardless, the analogy is applicable.
I believe that Doctorow is saying that the novel is the car, moving along the road. The driver navigates by his headlights, which, for the writer, is his outline. The car’s progress is controlled by the driver, just as the novel’s progress is directed by the writer. But wait! He’s also saying that we can’t know what lies out of range of our outlines any more than we can see beyond the headlights. Therefore, the writer must be focused and prepared to take his story in a direction he hadn’t foreseen.
Why would this be? As a writer, I understand completely, and I feel very relieved that my limited experience as a novelist falls within Doctorow’s ‘norm’. I have shared with many of my fellow writers, that something almost magical happens to me when I sit in front of a keyboard. I first noted the phenomenon in university when the keyboard belonged to a typewriter. Yes, I’m that old!! If I write with pen and paper, I get mediocre results; but when before a keyboard, my mind is flooded with ideas. It’s like the pipeline between my imagination and my fingers is suddenly opened wide. The point is, that I never know what’s going to happen when I sit down to write. I have decided to write a scene and I generally know what I want to happen, but I also know that it may turn out quite differently!
I used to worry about that. I felt like I was a poor writer because I could not stick to my mental outline. Yet, E. L. Doctorow says that you, the writer, can write the whole story that way. Eureka!! I’m not a weirdo! Often, I find that a character will cause me to take a scene or the whole story in a different direction. As I write, the ideas are flowing and the characters come alive. I can see their faces as they take charge of their fate – and my story! Cheeky devils! I always felt delighted when these things occurred – but I worried about how many rules of writing I was violating. No more… my new friend, E. L. Doctorow says it is a good way to go. He should know! Gee, that rhymes…