I don't know what I'm talking about.
As my friends will tell you, perhaps with a roll of the eyes, I love to tell stories. I think stories give form and meaning to our lives.
But what meaning does a given story carry? The more complex the story, the harder it is to answer the question, “What am I really talking about?”
When I sit down to write a novel I know how it starts and generally have a pretty good idea how it ends. It's all the stuff in between that causes the problems. Usually, I deal with the problem by sketching out a pretty good outline, which I freely change as new ideas occur to me.
As the writing and rewriting play out—and many say there is no such thing as writing, there is only rewriting—I gradually begin to understand what my own story is telling me. It's likely been talking to me all along, but only now do I understand what it's saying, what I might have intuitively known.
This head-clearing moment when the story reveals itself can come shockingly late. When it comes, though, I can go back to the beginning and read everything with a new sense of what it's all about. More often than not, the changes I need to make are relatively small—a few cuts here, a few new lines there, a few incidents told in a different order. After all, the truth of the story was there all along, but I just didn't see it. The relief I feel, and the relative ease I have in making the changes, brings new enthusiasm to a project which had begun to bewilder and discourage me.
A writer friend once asked me if I thought every story needed a theme. I said yes, adding something to the effect that this is the only way of knowing what belongs and what doesn't. (Dirty little secret: however different my stories, I find the themes are almost always the same.) Finally understanding the theme to my story is a liberating moment. And what is liberty but knowing what you have to do?
From the moment I find that meaning, I finally know what I'm talking about.