A writer's beginnings

by Artist Development Fellow

John Randolph Thornton ’14, a Pforzheimer House resident concentrating in History, was awarded an OFA Artist Development Fellowship to write a collection of stories informed and inspired by traveling and studying the American South. He recently had his first novel Beautiful Country accepted for publication in China. He plans to continue writing novels.

I find that people who do not themselves write fiction believe that the most difficult thing about writing is beginning—conceiving the initial idea.

People often ask me where ideas or inspiration for my stories come from. It is as if they expect me to tell them that somewhere there is a secret bank vault of story plots from which Flannery O’Connor withdrew "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and from which Walker Percy withdrew The Moviegoer.

Well, the fact of the matter is there is such a vault. It exists all around us: anything from something you hear a person say on the street to an out of place object in a room could be the initial inspiration for a story.

Due to the incredible generosity of the fellowship, I have been able to travel to and live in Charleston, New Orleans and Oxford, MS. These three places are each in their own way entirely different to the London I grew up in, the Florida I reside in and the Boston I study in. From experiences in these places, I have gotten the inspirations for a thousand beginnings.

But the most difficult thing is not beginning, it is beginning again.

After six weeks of writing two to four thousand words a day, I completed a manuscript of close to two hundred pages. What began as a collection of interlinked stories ended up as a novel. I knew I was going to have to change aspects of it to make it more cohesive but I wasn’t sure how extensive or in what direction those changes would be. I took a week off and showed it to a few people and then read it again myself.

About a week and a half later I realized that to make the story work, I needed to get rid of one of the characters and all the material concerning him. I went through my manuscript and marked every chapter or passage that centered on him. It was nearly half of what I had written.

Before this summer I probably would have decided that what I had was good enough and that all I needed to do was "re-shape" those chapters. But as I sat there, thinking about my work, I knew that was not the right thing to do. So I threw them all out.

Throwing those ninety or so pages into the waste paper bin was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do when it comes to my writing. I looked at each one of those pages and saw them not only as wasted hours, but also as hours that would need to be re-spent.

It was not easy to go back and start again, and it took me another week or so before I was ready to write. But I realize now that deciding to throw away all that material and start again has not only improved my manuscript, but it has also made me understand what it means to be a good writer.

It means writing 20 pages for every one you end up using. It means writing 39 endings until you have exactly the right one. It means throwing away half of your book if that will make it better. It means not stopping until what you have is perfect.

While none of those 90 pages will feature in any finalized version of my manuscript, they will make every page that does ten-fold stronger.

[Caption: Charleston, SC. Photo by JR Thornton.]