[Click here for other posts in the series Cried But Did The Thing Anyway – Life of a Freelance Writer]
Part the Sixth – Writing Is Like…?
Today, on Cried But Did The Thing Anyway, I want to talk about what writing is like. I’m going to take the writing experience and wrap it in a metaphor, adding mystique to the act of scratching a piece of paper with a pen. Every sailor talks about the sea, every mother talks about pregnancy, and I feel that every writer is entitled to talk about what writing is like to them. (So long as they don’t spend more time talking about it than actually writing.)
Even if I wanted to be original in my description, I think I’d suffer a miserable failure. I mean, my competition is literally thousands of people over hundreds of years, who dedicated their lives to spinning words in the best way they can. Besides, I’m not aiming for ingenuity in my description, but rather want to be genuine.
To me, writing – particularly, a novel – is like a long walk between two places I know.
This description falls somewhere in between the opinion of E.L. Doctorow:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
…and that of Stephen King:
“For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I’m pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want.”
To me, this is what it’s like. At the beginning, I’m in a place I know. I know where my characters are standing at the beginning of the story, I have some idea of what the world around them is like, and what direction they’re heading in.
Then, at the end of that route, there’s the destination. I’m pretty familiar with it, too. In the extended metaphor, it’s not exactly my home town, but a place I’ve visited a few times, and can find my way around.
And then there’s getting from one place to the other. I might have a map, showing me what kind of terrain lies between these two places (that would be the roughest of rough outlines of my plot). I might have a compass to tell me which way I’m facing (and that would be the knowledge of how my characters react to things). Aside from that, the only way to find out what happens is to start walking. And that’s the hardest part.
It’s weird, right? What’s so hard about walking? Most of us have been walking for most of our lives, and we don’t find this task daunting on a daily basis. We know exactly how to walk – left foot, right foot, repeat. But tell someone you’ve just walked ten miles, and the nicest question they come out with is, ‘Is it, like, for charity?’ (True story, by the way, no metaphors here.)
But once you’re on the road, and you’ve decided that walking is your only method of transportation between the two chosen points, there’s no end to surprises you can find. You end up walking longer because highways lack pavements, you get lost, get rained on, you find beautiful nooks you never would’ve stumbled into otherwise, you stop at cafes in the middle of nowhere to charge your phone. And the funniest thing is, once you’ve walked anywhere once, walking there for the second time takes three quarters of the time and less than half the effort.
This is why, between E.L. Doctorow’s and Stephen King’s quotes, I tend to lean more towards the latter. Driving through the night with only your headlights to see by is a great metaphor, sure, but it involves a machine that helps you get to places. An element of support, a safety net of sorts. Walking on foot, you’ve got no wheels to cover the road in your stead. Scratching your way through a hundred thousand words of first draft, you have no one else to figure it out for you.
Which brings me back to the Neil Gaiman quote I opened this post with. One word after another. Left foot, right foot. That easy. That hard. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Because you never know what to expect.
So, what’s writing like for you? A road trip? A surgery? A Machiavellian plan? Leave a comment, let me know!