The story I’m working on is stubborn. I’m almost at the forty thousand word mark and I still don’t know what the thing is about. What’s more, I don’t know what that means. One possibility is that it will turn out to be a very long book, something that will try the patience of anyone willing to give it a read. Another possibility, this one more alarming, is that it will never take any shape at all. I might be sitting at my desk in two years, thousands of pages into the thing, still waiting for something to happen. A more sensible approach would be to abandon the project, cut my losses, and start on something else. But I’ve got all those words and besides, I want to find out what happens—if anything.Here is novelist Alice McDermott on the topic of making these stories: “For the first half of the composition of each of my novels I have been consumed by a sense of not knowing what I’m doing, and for the second half I have been consumed by the certainty that I know exactly what I am doing and should not be doing it.” That is both funny and familiar and if story writing were a life and death sort of activity, it would be scary. But it isn’t. In my current effort it appears I’m still muddling around in the first half, working with that sense that I don’t know what I’m doing, that sense of groping in the dark. I think I’m waiting for my characters to tip their hands. So far, they’re being coy. They go to work; they visit with each other; they eat and drink and have long conversations. They have private thoughts, experience happiness and gloom. They ruminate on the past and wonder about the future and then they do it all over again, but not one of them seems to want step up, rob the bank, have the affair, blow up the high school, something cinematic. All of which is to say that they’re a lot like real people, at least in the way their lives seem to meander. Maybe meandering is what the story is really about. That would try the patience of any reader except maybe Proust, and he’s dead.Yet, for all this difficulty, when I’m busy following them, which is to say when I’m writing, which is to say when I’m discovering what they’re like and what they do, I’m pretty interested. I like them. I like their small time problems. They aren’t spies or gamblers; they have no relationship with the CIA or terrorists. Nothing cinematic. They’re simple people trying to get through their lives. It would be a shame to quit on them, leave them frozen in time like those curious figures on Keats’s famous urn. So I keep pounding away in the faith that the project will find itself.

If it does, if this book goes the way the others have gone, I’ll enter the second phase that Alice McDermott describes. I’ll know what I’m doing. I’ll have a sense of the arc of the story, as the phrase has it, and I’ll gain a hazy notion of how it will all end. The tale will stop wandering. I’ll learn why I picked this set of individuals or, perhaps more accurately, why this set of characters emerged from the obscurity that is my writing brain.

And then what? McDermott’s certainty that she “knows exactly what she’s doing and should not be doing it” is disturbing. Taken in a benign sense, I suppose it could mean that the story has decided to head down an artistic dead end. This might be true even if the tale were a page-turner, for many stories that are compelling are nonetheless forgettable. We enjoy the ride, but once we’re off the bus, the thrill is gone. Like sporting events or many films, the value of such books never rises above entertainment. And that’s not bad, but it may give rise to authorial certainty that one ought not be making exactly that tale.

Having the sense that one is one the wrong track, however, may mean that the entire story making enterprise is empty, a darker prospect. The fun in story telling, as in story reading, is finding out what happens next. For the reader, that often takes you right to the end. The writer however, as McDermott suggests, knows what’s up. Writers may start in the dark, but they finish in the light of day and knowing how it’s all going to work out also means that the fun, or much of it, is over. And so, why push forward? The world is glutted with stories. And now, with the advent of electronic publication and the democratic Kindle, anyone who can buy a computer and follow directions, can be a writer and published to boot. Maybe we should quit. Maybe writing stories is not at all what we should be doing. I think of that. Maybe my time would be better spent volunteering at the local wildlife center or supporting sensible candidates for public office, activities that might show positive results, rewards of a concrete sort.

Maybe. On the other hand, I tell myself and I think this point of view is as correct as its opposite, the world does need stories. What comes to us from past are, in part, the stories. Out of the thick matrix of individuals making art rises, in every era, those novels or plays, paintings or music that, for whatever reason, last. These become our ways of understanding who we were, where we came from, and who we are. These are the “documents” that shape our collective and individual imagination and help us comprehend our own experience, which is always a daunting task for each of us. I know it is doubtful that anything I create will last, be remembered, rise to august heights, but what I produce, whatever it’s value, is part of the mix, part of the matrix of our time, the soil, so to speak, of our years.

I don’t know how great works emerge. I think that process might be as mysterious as the emergence of character and plot in any individual writer’s work. But I think it fair to say that unless writers and other artists push through, finish the job, and get the work into the world, we will have no opportunities for anything to emerge at all.

My “emergencies” can be found at…