As you may or may not know, I do a bit of writing. What I don’t do very much is write about writing. There’s a lot of writing-about-writing about and I don’t feel the need, or in possession of the appropriate tackle, to add meaningfully to that existing canon.
These few paragraphs may be a small exception. Then again, they may not because what I’m doing today is not suggesting a way you should write but, rather, a way you don’t have to write. You can if you want to, and you’ll probably be way better off if you do, but you don’t have to.
At least, I don’t think you do. The older I get, the less stuff I seem to know for sure.
Lots of the most brilliant writers seem to have lots of brilliant ways to write. They utilise hundreds of tiny index cards and an array of large white boards and felt tip pens and truly-beautiful note pads with pens that spew ink in controlled mayhem.
These brilliant and envied (by me, at least) writers create a detailed road map of their writing before they ever write anything at all. They may well write entire biographies for their characters such that they know their lineage back to the War of the Roses and they delve deeper into their inner psyche than Freud ever got with any real person.
When they finally come to write, the road map they have created is so clear that the writing itself is a lavender-strewn stroll down a country laneway in high summer to the virtual village pub of the final page…
A quick read back and it sounds like I might be mocking these people. I’m not – gosh, I’m ‘so’ not. I envy them quite a bit. I would love to have a road map of juggled index cards and white boards and ink-ridden moleskine jottings. I’d love to give that a successful try.
Make no mistake, ‘successful’ is the key word in that last sentence ‘cos I have tried. I’ve utilised packs of postcards and written stuff on them (mostly ‘Act 1’, ‘Act 2’ and ‘Act 3’). I’ve even bought software to organise my brain and my plotting into some coherent mass.
None of it works for me.
I get bored and distracted, I lose impetus such that I may even give up what I was trying to do and go and tidy the kitchen instead.
All I can do is write.
‘Write it out’, that’s what I do. If I sense that I have something to write, all that I can successfully do is sit down and write it. If I ignore the nagging pulse in my arm that tells me I should be writing, if I break out the index cards and the software and the white board (I don’t even have a white board, not really) then I will lose my way and probably the initial inspiration too.
I’m not at all proud of this. In fact, this post feels more like a confession than most anything else I’ve ever written here. I long to be the consummate writing professional, plotting and planning my attack, getting to know my characters, laying the paving before I set off. But I can’t. All I can do is jump into the mire and start plodding my way through. Except that’s wrong, that last bit is all wrong. It’s never a plod or a trudge, not for me. Once I’ve got over the guilt of not doing all the plotting and planning, I sail, I skim along at a rate of knots. Ideas that never would have occurred to me while gazing at an index card pop up from nowhere. I’m sorry, it’s what works for me.
And there are many who will tell you how wrong my way actually is. Robert McKee, if I understand and paraphrase him correctly, would suggest that I will never raise myself about the linear and the obvious and even the cliché if I don’t do my groundwork first. He may be right for 99% of the people but I don’t think he’s right for me. How do I know? Simple. If I had to do all that stuff, I wouldn’t be writing. I’ll still be sitting staring at the groundwork wondering what the fuck to do next.
I reckon a large proportion of writers probably hate the ground work but they do it anyway. They do it because it makes their writing infinitely better and smarter and more original and wonderful and free. Like I said, I genuinely respect that and see the value in it. It just doesn’t work for me.
There is one crucial aspect to the silly amateur way I do things. Crucial. I have to reserve the right to hate the first and second drafts of anything I write. I have to resist any urge to settle for my first and second go at anything. The truth is, I believe I do a lot of the index card/white board stuff in my head, I’m constantly juggling and twisting stuff around as if that is my default setting. Perhaps that’s why any physical manifestation of the process alienates me so. But, no matter how much juggling I do in a first draft, there is loads still left to do. Huge swathes must be cut and chucked in the bin. What came first may now come last or somewhere in the middle. Everything is considered to be in flux until it is not.
It’s a bit like making a jigsaw puzzle with quite a few of the pieces hammered into the wrong place just to get some idea of how it all might fit together. I think that’s okay, for me at least, but then you have to step back and see which pieces are patently wrong, prise them out, and get them right.
If there’s a point to this post. I think it’s this. I think there are lots of ways of writing and if you’re stuck staring at the notebook or the plotting software, consider letting it go for a while and just writing. Just write. See where you go and where you end up. Just don’t settle for what you write in that initial foray.
Until it’s good.