Monday, August 6, 2012

Writing: The Art of Learning When to Breathe

I like sentences. I like words. I have always liked stringing words into sentences, and then shuffling them around to see how the meaning changes. There is a spiritual component to writing. Stringing enough words together to create a novel that someone will want to buy is an act of faith. 

The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath," and so I decided to subtitle this piece, The Art of Learning When to Breathe, because learning when to breathe was perhaps the most important spiritual lesson I have learned since pursuing a career in writing.

Anne Lindbergh describes the writing process so poetically in "Gift from the Sea." She says that when one sits down to write, one must wait to see what “chance treasures the easy unconscious rollers of the mind might toss up.” Neither the sea (nor the page) reward those “who are too anxious, too greedy, too impatient.” This is wise advice. Writing, perhaps particularly a novel because of its length and complexity, requires enormous patience and faith, many inhalations and exhalations.

Unlike Ms Lindbergh, who exhorts one not to dig, I feel one has to dig when writing a novel. Like an archaeologist, the writer must excavate the story, often buried beneath piles of rubble. First, the writer must uncover and identify the theme: What is this story about? What does it strive to say? The theme is like the crucible, the point of the writing crusade. It holds everything. Then, the writer has to identify where the story took place, who populated that place, and whose story it really is. Little by little, answers reveal themselves as the writer sifts through the sand: what happened in that place, on that particular day, to those particular people: the day of the story’s climax? What led up to it: the day the story really began?

The writer keeps digging, always asking, why, why, why? And then waiting patiently, with faith, for the answers. When they come, one writes and writes and hopes the pieces will fit together. They won’t. The writer then inserts that sensational snippet of conversation overheard one day in a diner, the odd outfit seen at an airport, hoping they will fit. They don’t. But the writer keeps digging and assembling, knowing that the fit is bad, because this is the first draft, and it is easier to revise 300 pages of ill-fitting dross than 300 blank ones.

After months, or years, the writer eventually types The End. They look very final, those two blunt words. The dock at the end of a long sea voyage that one is relieved to see, but also sorry, being somewhat nostalgic for the journey now ending.

But the journey is far from ending. One has only completed the first draft, after all, and must continue, with patience and faith and soft breaths, to blow away more silt from around the bricks and bones that one has uncovered in the rubble and assemble them into a cohesive whole, always patiently waiting to see what one has uncovered. It is a revelation. Writing can be supremely spiritual, but, as I look forward to the release of my second novel, I must say that publishing a novel feels, at times, more like running a steeplechase than engaging in a pilgrimage.
Next post: The Road to Publication: Trying Not to Hyperventilate

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