Writing is a Labyrinth

In the earliest version of the story, the labyrinth is guarded by a terrifying minotaur who devours all who enter its corridors. Eventually, it is conquered by Theseus, a hero of law and reason.

Over time, the labyrinth has developed explicit associations with of self-abandonment and -discovery, a space where you risk losing yourself, either to its countless turns or to its bestial guardian.

HBO’s Westworld reintroduced us to the labyrinth. The robots are enticed into a cognitive maze where at the center they will recognize themselves for who they are. Part of their secret is already manifest to the guests of Westworld, the rest is hidden from everyone. The paths they traverse (both real and metaphorical) are riddled with traps and dead ends that force them to return to the beginning. The violence along the way is apocalyptic. And once they find the center, is there a way out?

Recently I read Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. There is a scene where one of the principal characters decides to build a house for himself and bury it at the heart of a maze. This choice embarrasses the character a little: this is sort of cliche. He defends himself by saying the idea was not inspired by the countless labyrinths in literature but by the book of puzzles he was working through when he had the idea.

It’s tempting to read the character’s reaction as a stand-in for the author’s own embarrassment. “I don’t want to do what has already been done to death!” (As if there isn’t a finite amount of images and plot lines, only new ways to explore them.)

Here’s the rub: A Fraction of the Whole is a long book. Because writing a book is an enormous investment of time and psychological energy AND because a writer often colors a book with their own feelings and experiences, it is almost unavoidable for very long books to be on some level about their own creation.

Steve Toltz is a little embarrassed to use a labyrinth in his novel because his humorous tome full of wonderful paragraphs is also an attempt to solve his own maze, i.e. his quest to discover who is venturing to reach that center.

Well, the quest to solve that labyrinth (whatever that metaphor ultimately points to) is the impetus for humanity’s greatest creative endeavors. Surely, he has no cause to be embarrassed by that?

But the image of the labyrinth has been used before! Okay, but we don’t really hate repetition all that much. Sports for instance. Your favorite sport is pretty much the same damn thing every time, but you may watch thousands of those in your life. You don’t come back for the game itself, but for the ongoing stories of individual teams and athletes. The sport is merely the arena for the narrative. Similarly, in fiction, we don’t come to see the labyrinth, but how the rookie infielder is going to carry himself now that he’s in the big leagues.

(I’m from New York, I say big league. It’s harder for me than it is for you.)

I suspect Steve Toltz grimaces with embarrassment at this moment because he’s afraid we see him through the pages of his bulky text. Lounging around in his bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.

What can I say? Then don’t circle yourself and draw arrows to where you peep through the lines!

But even if he had not drawn attention to his choice, so much of writing a novel unspools a thread to follow to the center of its author. If you know how to look.

This is part of the appeal of creating fiction. You do not want to expose yourself (otherwise you’d just write a damn memoir) but you also want to be understood. But only by those willing to do the work. Only by those familiar enough with the intricacies of their own labyrinth to understand the dark corners of yours.

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