“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.”
~ Elie Wiesel ~
This is the thought for the week in one of the many writing newsletters I read. I’ve been wanting to do a post about writing, about how all the stories seem to exist already and it’s the job of the writer to unearth them, like an archeological excavation. But I haven’t been able to get it down very well and this quote sums it up perfectly.
For me, whether I’m writing fiction or an editorial or a straight news story, I never think of it as creating the story from scratch. The story exists. It’s out there on the air waiting for me to find it and put it on the page.
There are many different versions of the story using different words. Some versions are better than others and some are downright awful. The more terrible they are, the easier they are to find.
But one version is the best and it is mine, if only I can find it first. I often think of the writing process as a race, the first writer to find the words can claim them as his or her own. All the others will have to settle for the lesser versions of the story.
This isn’t to say that I think everything I write is the best version. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best version is so hard to find I usually give up the search long before I get anywhere near it. I focus on finding the version I can live with.
When I can say, “I can live with my name on this and be proud to say it is mine.” I’ve found my version, the one I’ll keep and claim as my own. It may be that another writer will find the best version and one day I’ll be reading a magazine or a book and clap my hand to my head and sigh, “God, I wish I had written that!”
Writing is something I do day and night, 24-7. I may not write down or type a single word, but every waking moment I’m tearing away the layers in the air searching for the perfect version of a story, or one that is good enough for me. And I continue to search even in my dreams at night, sometimes especially in my dreams at night.
Weeks might pass while I outwardly carry on my daily life, all the while inwardly searching for the story. And then one day while I’m in the shower or walking my dog or reading a book or exercising in the gym or watching television or cooking dinner or performing any number of day to day mundane activities, all of a sudden I will find something and get excited.
It may only be a single word or a phrase. If I’m lucky it may be a sentence. If I’m in the hot zone it will be a paragraph. When I see it in my mind I will immediately recognize it as being from a pretty good version of the story. I will gasp out loud, drop everything, scramble to find a pen, paper or anything to capture the thought and frantically scribble it all down before it disappears.
I’ve written on napkins, cereal boxes, business cards, popsicle sticks, cigarette packs, book jackets, gum wrappers, and when all else failed my own arm, but usually I have my notebook close by just in case the words present themselves. The important thing is just to get it down before it fades back into the shadows.
At this stage of the writing, I usually don’t even know what the story is about. That snippet I got so excited about might sit in my notebook for months or even years, before the day finally comes when I will understand which story it belongs with.
It can be a lot like a putting together a puzzle. You know when you’ve got several different puzzles and somehow all the pieces get mixed together. Then you don’t know which piece goes with what puzzle. That’s a lot like these snippets I write down. I constantly collect the pieces to a lot of different stories and have to figure out which ones fit together.
I continue to be amazed when I’m writing something new and I realise I jotted down a piece of the story a couple of years ago that I need to use now. I need to use it because this is the story where it belongs. It’s a bit freaky to think I touched a piece of that story years earlier when I didn’t know what it was.
I’m sure not all writers think of the process in this way. Since the days of Aristotle, a common philosophical debate has been whether art exists on some level where artists find it and bring it to ours or whether artists create something totally new.
Of course everyone has their own theory, but as a writer, as someone who creates, this is the way the process feels for me. I’d be interested to hear from some of the other writers and artists who read this blog, whether your experience is similar or something else entirely.