Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2690 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

The Bridges of Bern: On Plotting Fiction

by Thomas E. Kennedy

A professor of creative writing at a Swiss university invited me to address his class about the way in which I plot out a story or novel. I had a free day before the talk and began to contemplate that problem as I strolled the beautiful city of Bern. But then the problem got lost amidst my admiration of the city with its very old buildings on cobblestoned streets laced with bright red streetcars that shone in the sunlight and clanged melodiously, the multitude of bridges that spanned the River Aare, looping around its banks.

A thought struck me as I walked past the bear pits—which happily are no longer pits but an open, grassy, wall-enclosed hillside on the narrowest bank of the Aare. If I had seen Bern before I saw and fell in love with Copenhagen, I might have settled here. I watched the mother bear with her two cubs on one side of a fence, foraging for the food that the keepers had hidden there for them, while the father bear, on the other side of the fence, grubbed alone in the grass because it was not yet safe to allow him in proximity of the cubs.

And then the distressing idea occurred to me that if I had fallen in love with Bern instead of Copenhagen, I would never have met my Danish wife, and my two children would not have been born. I did not like to think about that. Well surely I would have married and had two children here in Bern—that after all seemed a given of my fate—and they would have been partially similar to my own Danish-American children, but these two children would have, presumably, been born of a Swiss mother—perhaps the beautiful Swiss artist I met yesterday who greeted me in conventional Swiss manner, three kisses, right left right, but were her lips not a little more open than usual? were they not a bit closer to mine than normal?—oh, man, you’re imagining things, but yes! in your imagination, you can take her for the wife of this character who is evolving here, who chooses Bern rather than Copenhagen. So your character will have two children with the beautiful Swiss artist (man, you haven’t even set pen to page yet and you’re already about to make love!), and they would be like my own children but halfway different.

As I began imagining that, it further occurred to me that perhaps I should write a novel of alternate realities: A man reaches a fork in the road, a fork in the skyway, and has to decide whether he will fly to Copenhagen or to Bern. I would begin the novel with the character choosing to fly to Copenhagen, and he falls in love with that city, and he stays there, and then he falls in love in that city and has two children with his Danish wife. But the next chapter would begin an alternate reality in which, confronted with the fork in the skyway, he chooses the flight to Bern and he falls in love with Bern and then in Bern and he marries a Swiss woman (the beautiful Swiss artist!) with whom he has two children, and they are halfway different but halfway the same as his Copenhagen children, and I could follow those two alternating realities to see where they would lead the story.

And then I realized that instead of thinking about how I plot out a novel, I was in fact plotting out a novel. But that did not address the question of how—which I had promised to talk about to the students. So I continued along the bank of the Aare and climbed the stairway up to the high Nydeggbrücke bridge and crossed it, over the Aare, and began to wander along Postgasse and Rathausgasse toward Kornhausplatz, hoping to discover a delightful outdoor café where I could sit in the sun and drink a pint. And then it occurred to me that I might find such a café, or I might not—I would have to keep following my feet along the cobblestones to discover what I would find. And then I realized that I never actually plot out a story or a novel—I just follow the feet of my imagination and my flow of language to see where they will lead. Or in some way the novels and stories plot themselves out, or grow out of the seed of an initial idea or impulse, perhaps influenced by my surroundings. Perhaps the thought of falling in love with Bern occurred to me just as I saw the bears and the two cubs with the father bear alone behind his fence which reminded me of my own two children and how they would not exist—or only halfway exist—if I had fallen in love with Bern instead of Copenhagen.

So that was the seed or the spark of an idea. Thus, the so-called “plotting” is a bit of a passive process—you have to allow it to happen—but it is also an active process because you have to be open to the thoughts that are occurring within you, because if you don’t become aware of the initial part of the process, you will have nothing to follow. And sometimes the initial part of the process is a distressing or unpleasant or embarrassing thought—the kind of thought that we do not really want to think or do not really want to acknowledge as a part of us.

But in writing fiction over many years, we begin to realize what Jung meant when he said, “We are no more responsible for the thoughts in our heads than we are for the beasts in the forest.” What we are responsible for are our actions. But in fact, by becoming aware of our thoughts, we can begin to take responsibility for them and to tame them, to civilize them into an artistic pattern that yields a measure of understanding of what it is to be alive, to be human.

Let me give an example of a short-short fiction I wrote a couple of years ago that was published in an on-line magazine called Contrary. The story was titled “A Thought,” and the magazine paid me the princely sum of twenty dollars for it—about enough for a lunch of two wiener sausages and three draft Cardinal beers at the Café des Pyrénées on Kornhausplatz (which was in fact the sunny café that my feet led me to that day in Bern—it was as though I had saved that twenty dollars for my lunch that day—although before my feet led me there, they decided that I should stop and look up at the marvelous clock tower between Marktgasse and Kramgasse, stop to make use of the very useful outdoor pissoir alongside, above which a sign in German instructs the users to please organize their britches before emerging into the street again, and then led me past the Ogre Fountain, a sculpture of an ogre eating a child).

The way that story, “A Thought,” was born went like this: At a cocktail party one day, I was speaking with a very nice older woman—when I say older, I mean older than me, which is rather old by some measures—and she was being perfectly civilized and polite, and I think she was even congratulating me about one of my books, and suddenly and quite involuntarily a thought, or a picture entered my mind. The thought was, What if I suddenly lost control of myself and some alien impulse had me throw my glass of wine into this perfectly nice woman’s face?

I did not wish to think that thought, but it occurred to me that similar thoughts had poked their way into my consciousness before—not often, but perhaps four or five times in my life that I remember. So instead of immediately dismissing the thought as unworthy of the consciousness of a civilized person, I allowed it to enter my mind, and while I stood chatting with this very nice woman, I crossed one bridge over the river of my consciousness and followed that thought along its way—that is, I objectified it, and that thought became the seed of a character in a fiction that I wrote with one part of my mind as I stood chatting with the woman, and then became became a 1200-word flash fiction entitled “A Thought,” for which I was paid twenty dollars that, years later, would pay for my lunch at the Café des Pyrénées on Kornhausplatz in Bern.

My initial feeling was to suppress the thought and the story, to forget it, dismiss it. I feared that people would think of me as a madman who went around thinking unpleasant things while I stood smiling at them at cocktail parties, but the story insisted on being written, so I wrote it and published it and thus not only did not have to deny myself lunch that day in Bern, but I would even venture to say that the story became a kind of metaphor for civilization—just as the character in my story was appalled by the uncivilized scrap of thought that poked into his mind while he stood smiling and chatting in a civilized manner, so too our civilization proceeds along its surface in its cozy civilized manner while in its shadowy basements it perpetrates the most gruesome and grizzly acts—in its wars, its prisons, its torture chambers, in the privacy of its bourgeois homes, etc.

Many of the stories or novels that I have written over the past twenty-five years were born and grew out of the seed of a thought I did not really want to think at first, but which, when I allowed it into my mind and studied it objectively showed itself to be a metaphor for a greater thing than I would be able to consciously find my way to. Not that I studied it as the seed of a thought—no, I allowed the seed to grow and watched what it became, and then I studied that and shaped and revised and polished it.

Perhaps this is the way many or even most stories and novels are born. Think of Raskolnikov killing the pawnbroker, a greedy woman, but in performing the act he has to kill her saintly sister as well. This novel could only have been born out of an envious perception. If Dostoevsky had not allowed himself to think the envious, hateful thoughts that Raskolnikov was born from, if he had not allowed himself to imagine Raskolnikov killing the pawnbroker and had not allowed himself to imagine the pawnbroker’s saintly sister stumbling into the room while he was doing so, we would not have one of the, arguably, greatest novels of the last century and a half.

Or if Sophocles had not allowed himself to follow the thought of the dream in which a man makes love to his mother, we would not have the great tragic play Oedipus Rex (and then what would poor Freud have had to work with?) and how much poorer world literature would be.

And if I myself had never been a heavy smoker who quit and started eating everything in sight and had not found myself one day making one sandwich while eating another and thinking that my appetite seemed to have become infinite, that I was in danger of eating everything in the house—in the instant of confrontation with that thought would not have been born a character who decides to eat everything in the house, and from the seed of that character would not have been born my short story “The Great Master” (published first in the Missouri Review, and later in my story collection Drive Dive Dance & Fight).

Or if, when my girlfriend, decades before, worried that she might be pregnant, if I—penniless, living on a desert commune with her—had not allowed the desire to flee admission to my consciousness, I would not have been able to plant the seed of the main character of a novel that was written twenty years later, entitled A Passion in the Desert (published by Wordcraft of Oregon, and a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year). I did not flee, and she turned out not to be pregnant, but the character in that novel did flee and his girlfriend was pregnant and the child was born and then...

Let me give another example based on a less dramatic occurrence. After my sausages and beers at the Café des Pyrénées, I walked down to Casinoplatz and happened past the university library. I thought I would go in and look around, but didn’t know if it was open to the public, and I couldn’t see inside so with some uncertainty, I opened the door and found myself in a kind of long vestibule. At the far end, behind a glass wall, many people sat at tables, and one of them, a tall young man with a long neck, seemed to be looking at me and laughing. A thought wanted to enter my mind: He’s laughing at me! Of course, I knew he was not laughing at me. It was an irrational thought that I did not want in my mind, and I might have dismissed it, but suddenly I noticed it and objectified it. And I realized it was something left over from my childhood, when entering an unknown place made me nervous because I had not yet learned how to act in new situations.

But then it occurred to me what if there was a grown man who went around with such fear of the world, a fear that people were always laughing at him, a fear that he was not welcome in all of the places that most of us feel we have every right to enter—if his internal feelings forced him to be an outsider so that he actually became an outsider who was viewed by other people as strange and ultimately unwelcome. Who would that man be? What would be his story? Where does he live? How does he live? What is going to become of him. Does he have no friends at all? Or does he think that the few people he is not afraid of—the shopkeeper on the corner who greets him warmly, a woman in his apartment building who smiles at him every morning, one cashier in the supermarket who always asks how he is today—does he think that these people are his friends? And what if one day, those three kind people happen to be in a bad mood for private reasons (perhaps because the weather has been bad for three days in a row, as it was last week) and fail to greet him, fail to smile at him, and he feels that his world is crumbling down upon his head. And what happens to him? What does he do?

That is the seed from which a story can grow if we open our imaginations to it—if we do not dismiss that man (who exists in the glint of a thought in our own minds) before he can even be born into our imaginations—if we do not allow uncomfortable thoughts to slip away merely because we do not want the world to be that way, because we do not want those thoughts in our minds.

So it is not so much a matter of plotting, or of thinking your way forward into a narrative, not a matter of deciding what will happen so much as planting the seed of a character in the soil of your imagination and creating the linguistic climate in which that seed might develop. Of allowing it to grow, of letting it happen, of following the river of words that creates it.

And now, please excuse me, I have a story to write about that man—unless, of course, you write it first.


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury