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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