After two years of writing, I still expect stories to pop out of my head and form, nearly-finished, on the page. Despite more than a decade of telling students to slow down and take their time, I still rush. Although lately I’ve urged myself to focus, to finish things before I start new ones, I still make daily to-do lists that say things like…
- Finish chapter 14
- Revise short story
- Write a blog post
- Read for one hour
…and I actually expect that such quick accomplishments and multitasking of the mind are possible.
A few mornings ago, I woke up with a story in my head. I developed it, tweaked it, walked around with it, honed it, until it was practically bursting from me. I was so excited to sit down and write it out. (That simple. Just write it out.) It was my first ever effort in the world of magical realism, yet I expected that this story (so beautiful and seemingly fully-formed in my mind) would just whoosh out onto the page, needing only a little revising before it was ready. (Just draft-ready, of course, but, you know, a pretty polished draft, good enough for me to take to a critique group the next day.) But then I sat down to write it, and that first simple scene took WAAAAAAAY longer to create than I thought it would. And the characters that were so crisp in my head came out kind of fuzzy. And the plot… (I so often struggle with plot, but this story had one! It did!)… the plot seemed less, well, “plotty” when I got it down on paper.
The experience reminded me of Ann Patchett’s essay about writing in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In “The Getaway Car,” Patchett writes:
This book I have not written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do… I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it… Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
The thing is, writing is WORK. Real, actual, difficult work. We read books on craft and we pepper our favorite novels with sticky notes and we stay up nights thinking of all the brilliant ideas floating around in our heads. But eventually we must come to the page, and we must take all that inspiration, all that knowledge, all those brilliant ideas, and we must type them. And delete them. And retype them. And type them some more in a different order. And look back at our sticky notes to see if maybe we missed something important. And open those craft books to the highlighted passages to see if maybe the answer is there. And re-read our favorite novels, asking ourselves, How did she DO that? In sum, we must WORK.
So why do we do it? Because it’s so much fun. Writing is like working a puzzle and playing a game and opening an old treasure box all at the same time. When you put in the time and do the work, you find hidden gems, see pieces lock together, and get bursts of joy and energy when you finally figure out how to defeat a frustrating transition and “level up” so to speak. The moment when the thing you thought you had killed suddenly gasps back to life and takes a breath and then another and then another… that moment makes everything else worth it.
And now, back to work. 🙂