Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

When Is the End Really the End?

When is a writing project done? That question resides in the lofty realm of other open-ended great questions: How did the universe begin? What’s the sound of one hand clapping? Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? No one seems to have a firm answer. I believe that’s because it varies from writer to writer, from project to project.

In my experience, asking this question typically elicits a perverse response. Experienced writers with a few projects under their belts delight in upping the amount of work required before a project is “done.”

“You need to do at least seven drafts of that 2,000-word travel article.” “Every line in that poem should be rewritten at least five times before showing it to anyone.” “Throw out that 70-page script you’ve labored over for a year and rewrite it from memory, so you only keep the parts that work.”

To the uninitiated, this kind of advice seems to say: Don’t bother. You can’t possibly climb the mountain that’s required to reach the peak that I’m at.

Wow—thanks for nothing!

The difficulty in answering this question has to do with the nature of art and creativity. There’s a great parallel between writing and crafting a marble statue. You start with a block of marble, start chipping away large chunks of stone until you have a rough form, and then you begin carving out smaller and smaller details. You’re done when the physical object you’ve crafted resembles the sculpture that your imagination has envisioned. Similarly, you’re done with a writing project when it resembles the glowing image residing in the corner of your imagination.

Oh, I know, that’s an overly simplistic answer. But it certainly sounds more doable than “when you finish umpteenth number of drafts.” Every creative project brings its own challenges and goals, and therefore operates on its own unique timeline. Paul McCartney wrote the entire melody for “Yesterday” in one sitting at the piano following a dream. Other projects follow the Leonardo da Vinci maxim: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

The more skilled and practiced you are at the craft of writing, the sculpting of an idea into the form you imagine, the quicker and easier you will “finish” a project. Do the work that needs to happen to bring that idea as close to what you imagined as possible. Trust in your intuition to know when that writing project is done, rather than some outside authority that lacks the intimacy that you have with your work and process.

And there’s nothing simplistic or easy about the craft of writing. Fully fleshing out an idea on paper is tedious, complicated work. Keeping to a writing schedule requires sacrifice. Knowing what rules to follow and which ones to break requires book-reading knowledge that only comes from years of reading.

Keeping track of progress in revising the numerous smaller parts of the whole project requires prodigious concentration. Combing the same line over and over, your eyes twitching two inches from the page, does not conjure up the stereotype of the successful writer commanding attention at a dinner party, scotch in one hand while tossing off bon mots with the other. It brings to mind minimum wage labor (which for most writers, it is).

You may indeed write 17 drafts of that story, but you’ll be doing it because that’s what the story requires, not because someone told you that was the threshold for “finishing” it. And your progress and esteem will remain in your own hands, where they belong.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at