Writing is Zen.
Writing isn’t about inspiration or waiting for your muse to arrive and undress.
Writing is about getting down to it, about finding your way into the moment and sustaining the energy for as long as you can effectively and in the rhythm of your narrative.
This guest post is by Steven Gillis. Gillis is the author of the novels Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Temporary People and The Consequence of Skating, along with Benchere in Wonderland (Hawthorne Books, 2015) as well as the short story collections Giraffes and The Law of Strings. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University before founding 826michigan in 2004. Steve is now the co-founder and publisher of Dzanc Books. Follow Steven on Twitter at @barkingman.
I used to teach creative writing at Eastern Michigan University. (I loved teaching and but for the demands on my time from my myriad of other projects I would still be teaching; but I digress.) My students were grad level, talented kids, and so when I told them at the start of each semester that they would write a single story for the semester they looked at me quizzically. They were used to writing several stories in the course of a few months. Nope, I said, one story and you will rewrite your story over and over again.
Each semester I was met with skepticism. Re-write? More than once? But why? And how?
Make no mistake: The art of writing is in the rewriting. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] As Dorothy Parker said in, The Art of Fiction, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. ” Dorothy Parker is right. When we sit down to draft a story we are putting our ideas on the page. Our draft is a blueprint. Within the course of that initial draft occasional bits of brilliance may indeed find their way to the page. One can only hope and should hope. But to fully realize the vision we have for any piece of fiction, be it a novel or short story, we must live with it and work with it again and again.
The process one takes toward rewriting may vary. Some authors prefer to go 100 mph through their first draft, get everything down on the page and then go back and in earnest begin the real work. Others do detailed outlines, do detailed character sketches. My approach is to draft in spurts. I go forward a handful of pages, then I go back, forward and back. I like to craft as I go, to polish. I also listen to my gut to be sure my narrative is on course. So, when I get to the end of a complete manuscript I have actually rewritten the work a few times. Then with the whole manuscript in hand, I go back and rewrite again. And again.
Sure, sure you say. But if we do that how will we ever know when we are done?
I can only tell you this: Believe me, when you master the process, you will know. Trust the process. Trust your instincts and your gut. Indeed there is such a thing as diminishing returns and an artist must know when to stop. But in order to know when you must first apply yourself to the rewrite. Write and rewrite. You will discover while doing so things you did not imagine about your work when you first sat down to create your initial vision.
Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, said: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Bingo.
A writer, as an artist, has two tasks: to tell the story they wish to present and to present the story in the most beautifully written way they can. Sometimes the rewriting process entails getting the story just so. Other times, it is possible after a few drafts to have the structure dead on and set and then the focus is solely on the prose. Mostly, for me, it is a combination of the two. Ultimately then, for me, when the structure is as I want it – and with each project its different – I will do one final final pass concentrating most on the language, Regardless, of how a writer dives in, the key is to work the manuscript, again and again.
Which brings us back to the concept of Zen. Writing well is a mindset. You have to believe in yourself and take yourself seriously. You have to get to a place of absolute conviction, a spiritual meditation when you are inside the work, become the work. (“Be the ball,” as Bill Murray said in Caddyshack.) Writing is an act which requires stamina and courage and perseverance. Be fearless. Do not give in. Find that meditative state with your writing daily if you can. If you write for two hours and you have fifteen minutes of Zen, that’s great. And the other 105 minutes are of value, too, for sure, as its in the grind time that you become the writer you are. Honest. Be trusting and selfish with your art. Be bold. Be Zen. Write. And rewrite. For sure.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.