E.L. Doctorow

Where Stories Start

The other day, during a panel discussion on “place as character in fiction” at the Iowa City Book Festival, my co-panelist Don Waters asked me a question:

Do you ever want to write about a place you can’t get access to?

He mentioned a few such places on his list: a huge, land art installation on private property in the Nevada desert; the U.S. government’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. What do you do, he asked, when you want to write about a place, and you just can’t get in?

I hedged. I talked about an anecdote from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” King relates that when he was writing “From a Buick 8,” he had some scenes take place in a state trooper car, travelling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. King made the details up out of whole cloth in the initial writing. He let his mind run free as he created. Later, he rode in an actual cruiser with an actual trooper — and then went back and fixed the details he got wrong, or added new ones for authenticity.

This, I said, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from E.L. Doctorow:

Henry James has a parable about what writing is. He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers’ conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she’s a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and intuition.

I have this quote typed, and taped to my wall behind my computer monitor. There is something in the spirit of this that I need to believe, as a writer, is fundamentally true.

But if I’m being honest, I sometimes have my doubts. I envy writers like Don, who are drawn to subjects far beyond their experience.

I didn’t say it at the time, but Don’s question gave me pause. Truth is, I’ve never really been drawn — as a fiction writer — to the unknown, the tantalizingly out-of-reach. What most interests me are the places I can map when I close my eyes.

I sometimes think that every story I’ve ever written starts in the exact same place: the rooms of my childhood. On Grant Avenue in Highland Park, with the window overlooking the street, and the photo-sensitive streetlight that buzzed to life at dusk. On Joan Road, Long Beach Island, where the beds were always itchy with humidity and sand. On Ohayo Mountain Road in Woodstock, charged with the smell of wicker and vitamins and Grandma’s assertive black coffee.

There, because in those rooms, the world was still filled with a penetrating, thrilling wonder. In those rooms, anything was — anything still is — possible.