But I’ve also been writing, and writing, and writing…more than just syllabi or notes for class. Inspired in part by getting to hang out with Marla, I picked up the draft of a novel I churned through last summer and dug in. That’s one metaphor for writing–digging in. It certainly conveys the physicality of it. Folks think writing is not at all physical, but you try getting yourself to stay seated in a chair even when you’re thinking that everything that comes out of your head and onto the page is the worse kind of drivel ever produced. Staying seated in those moments is a physical act.
While I was writing this novel draft last summer, I very much liked thinking of painting as a nice metaphor for writing. Painting is often all about putting some paint on the canvas. Especially with oil painting, there’s always the chance to change things later. But nothing happens until you throw some paint up there, as terrifying as that can feel. Many people never get past the blank canvas or the blank page. It is an act of courage to throw it out there, and last summer, that’s what I was doing. Just churning it out and throwing the words onto the page.
This month as I was continuing to shape what I had churned out last summer, I decided it worked to think of writing as like knitting. People will sometimes say to me, “I can’t knit,” or “I have no talent for knitting.” And okay, maybe really some people for one reason or another really can’t knit. But in the end, it’s all about muscle memory, which means it’s about just doing it over and over and over again. There’s nothing particularly glamourous about it. You just have to sit down and do it, and especially with very long projects, there are moments when it’s pretty tedious. But if you want to make a sweater, you have to get through the tedium sometimes.
Writing can be like that. You don’t always feel caught up in the ecstatic grip of the Muses. Sometimes you feel like you’d all in all rather be having parts of your body slowly removed. Anything would be better than sitting in front of the blank page. But if it’s like knitting, you just sit down and do it. Every stitch is so incredibly small, but eventually, you’ll have a sweater. With that long view, you can’t sweat each word. But if you don’t sit down and make yourself do it, you’re going to find yourself pretty cold come the winter.
Then I read this great quote from Elie Wiesel on the excellent blog, Advice to Writers:
Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.
And, oh my god, how brilliant! That’s exactly what writing is like, or at least the tedious activity I’ve been engaged in for the last month that seems tangentially related to writing. I think you call it editing, though I have to say, editing doesn’t really begin to cover it. Editing implies something that comes at the end, like sprinkling the little candy sparkles on the top of the baked and iced cupcake. But this is more like trying to magically extract certain chemical ingredients from the cupcake after you’ve already cooked it. Really, editing is frustrating and magical and oddly chemical in that exact way.
But it is also like sculpture, in the sense that there’s a lot of cutting away. In fact, the document where I put everything I’ve taken out of the draft is now longer than the draft itself. But like Wiesel says, I had to write the other stuff. And even though it might not end up in the final draft, in some weird way, it’s still there.
So what is writing? Is it digging, or painting, or knitting, or sculpting? Of course it’s all of those things and more, as is true of any complicated endeavor in life. And like all the truly meaningful endeavors in life, it also an act of courage. Here’s another great quote from Advice to Writers:
If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You’re a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.