Before the Story
Here is my writing lesson for the day. In Friday’s column I describe a scene where my son and I search for a Japanese hobby store near a beautician’s academy. In the column’s second paragraph I recall my feelings as a teenager for the type of women I saw swarming in and out of the academy. This paragraph took longer than any other in the essay to finish. In fact, I abandoned it Thursday afternoon and completed it Friday morning. How I went about finishing this paragraph has everything to do with the writing lessons I have learned in the last five years, lessons that have nothing whatsoever to do with language. The first half of the paragraph came very quickly. I knew we had driven to the parking lot, I knew we had seen the girls laughing and smoking, and I knew that I had been drawn to such girls as a teenager. What I did not know was why I had been drawn to them. Because the first three sentences had come so quickly, I continued to write at the same pace, assuming the first answer to come would be the right one. The result made me sound lascivious, which I knew I was not. The second try sounded flip.
It was at this point that I understood that the true answer to why these girls had interested me lay deeper beneath the surface than I had first anticipated. That is, I could still feel why they had interested me, but I had to admit that I could not see why they had interested me, and until I could see the answer to this question, I could not write it. This is the point, in the past, where panic might have set in. I might have attributed my failed attempts to lack of skill, or shallowness. I might have forgotten that sometimes the writer’s job is not to entertain or enlighten but to learn.
It is odd to think we are learning what we already know. That is, feeling why I had been interested in these girls is a kind of knowledge, but it is not the same knowledge as seeing. In this way, all writing, and all learning too, is articulated remembering. The feelings point the way for our consciousness, and in following we are guided to what we have both feared and desired—ourselves before our story was told.
Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!