The Song Without End

Once when I was on vacation with my wife in a rainforest in Washington State, I found myself inspired by the moss and mist and felt a story bubbling in me. When I shared it with my wife, she rolled her eyes and said, “You’ve got this antenna and it’s always picking up stories. Just because you pick one up doesn’t mean you want to tell it.”

She was absolutely correct, and in fact the story never got told. But I’ve thought about my antenna a lot since then. I always viewed it as useful when finding a story, but unnecessary in the telling. Once the story had been found, it was my job to tell it. I have since come to understand that the antenna is the most valuable tool at a writer’s disposal, from the first kernel of an idea, to the final edit.

Imagine the world of possible stories like an infinite number of radio stations, each of which plays only one song. All these stories pass through your antenna, and you, as the writer, tune your dial to the song that interests you most. But you aren’t writing a song, you’re writing a story, and so it is your job to listen carefully to that song and translate it into characters and actions and scenes and words, trying to match the scenes and characters and words to that song in its feeling and intention and energy.

What is important to remember is that that song never stops playing. It plays whether you are happy or sad, whether you are waking or sleeping, whether you are writing to watching television. At times it appears the station on which the song is playing has been shut down, but it has not. The silence we call writer’s block is only the writer believing he and he alone must make everything up, and so forgets to tune his receiver, or worse yet, simply stops listening to it altogether.

In this way, we are not really making anything up; we are only listening—but listening as patiently, and as carefully as we can possibly listen, and always comparing what we have written to what we are hearing. The only thing that can stop that song from playing is fear. Fear shuts off the antenna in an instant. You must trust to hear it again, and when you do you will feel not the strength of creation, but the steady assuring melody that has been playing for you as long as you have been asking to hear it.

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Life Itself

I changed my writing schedule today. Instead of writing in the afternoon I am now writing in the morning. Not that I never got work done in the afternoon, but my children get home from school just as I’d be getting warmed up and so the interruptions began and the flow would be interrupted.

The flow is very important. Writing is unlike any other work I have ever done in this way. I feel sometimes when I am writing as if I have plunged into a swift current. The ride can be exhilarating and interesting, but the engine moving everything forward is somehow separate from me. This is why writers often talk about characters hijacking their stories, or beginning a sentence and realizing by the end of that sentence that the story has changed completely.

I understand now that I both love and fear the current. The current is what draws me to writing and what, on my bad days, keeps me away from my desk. On the bad days I don’t trust the current at all. What if it leads me to a quagmire? Shouldn’t I know where I’m going before I jump in? On the good days, I’m happy to be along for the ride, and when it’s time to get out, there’s always a dock at the ready.

It’s great to learn about dialogue and plot structure and crisp sentences—these tools help you stay afloat when the water gets rough. But writing is more about trusting the current than all the technical know-how put together. Eventually you must release your hold on the shore, and even the most skilled navigators can strike a rock now and again.

I have wanted to write to be famous; I have wanted to write so people would think I was smart; and I have wanted to write to make other people happy. It is obvious why none of these are reasons to write, but what was not obvious to me until recently was that I wasn’t even writing to tell stories. Eventually, I, like everyone else, was going to have to learn how to let go of the shore once and for all. The closer I got to the water the more I understood that nothing I wrote was make-believe, that the current I called a story was actually life itself.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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