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On writing

This week I've been working on an essay I've been trying to write for three and a half years. I'm not sure if writing about trying to write it will help, but the writing of it has become a thing in itself.

It consumes me, this thing I have to say. It aches and stabs and doesn't let go. (My palms, I just noticed, are actually sweating.) But it's too many things at once. It has a thousand beginnings and no end.

Writing is a strange thing. It's two things: It's something you do, and therefore something you can do well or not well — something you can learn, something you can practice. And it's something that happens, something that just is. You can't learn this other thing, or help it. You can edit it, make it prettier, clean it up, but it comes from somewhere else, not from the act of writing itself, but from the thing that's being written.

I still have no control over that other thing. It needs a discipline I haven't yet found. I don't want it; it's miserable, hard, thankless work, it drives you to face alone and naked the hurts and needs that loneliness least can bear. But it's there, and it will remain until I find a way to let it out.

So I'm working on it, trying to tackle my jumbled notions and emotions one at a time. It would be easier if I didn't need to say something that makes sense. But I suppose that's a key, in a way. If it didn't have to make sense, didn't need to be captured so someone else could understand, I wouldn't need to write it down.

So here I am, struggling to make sense of a thing for which I have no map or compass. I don't know where to begin, and I don't know where it will end, and I don't even know how I'll be able to tell if I've succeeded. It's all too close; my heart's in it, and I need to tear it out before I can put it back in.

There's a little heart in this, too. You can tell because it makes no sense. I think I'll let it stay, though — it's the other thing that matters (and which is infecting what I'm trying to say here). I can still feel that other thing happening, simmering. Hopefully, when I open the lid again, a piece of it will rise to the top.

January 29, 2002 2:18 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

I think you just expressed something here that I've been grappling with for a long time. I've never been able to put into words exactly how one senses credibility in a writer. This feeling in a reader is very instinctive, therefore describing it is difficult.

I may feel jealous about those writers who can pump out 1500 words a day on their latest novel. But then I realize that it's misplaced. I should admire their dicipline, but their output? Too many times that output is formulistic.

Rather, a writer needs to speak from the heart. A writer needs to trouble over the things you describe here. A writer needs to let the ideas and concepts simmer inwardly and figure out why certain things work or don't. Then, and only then, does the output exude credibility.

Keep working on your essay. Exactly in the way you've been. When it's ready to be written, you'll know. Maybe you've already made it halfway there... you already know when it's NOT ready to be written!

By the way, I discovered your site by chance last week. I like the concept and the look. Keep up the good work!

Posted by Dave on January 29, 2002 6:30 PM

This captures my feelings about writing superbly. I liked the "integrity" comment too.

I find the initial spark of inspiration to be almost a nothing, but to make something right from it is mind-breaking labour. There is also something about thought which is insoluble in written form. Something live and skittering and just out of reach, down in the gaps between the words.

Posted by dan on January 30, 2002 8:12 AM

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