Frantic and edgy, once a month, a writer comes to the workshops full of apologies.
“The dog threw up and I had to take her to the vet.” “Big fight with my spouse.” “Work got me, I had only thirty-five minutes to write.”
Next we’ll hear about the supreme effort. “I got up early and wrote as fast as I could. I didn’t have time to go over it. Or anything. So sorry!”
This happened last week with Vivian. All she had time for, so she said, was an abbreviated “character sketch.”
Then she read a powerful, understated, poignant story. It might be her very best. It’s tuned to the subject, it doesn’t waste any time on fancy sentences or literary images. It has a consistent, naturally evolving tone. And it stays on track. It goes efficiently to its conclusion.
What happened? Why was her opinion so different from the fact?
She might think it was only by chance, that in one moment all the elements for good writing came together. Once she started, though, nothing was by chance.
You know the phrase, “I got out of my own way.” I don’t know when it originated, but I’ve heard it for forty years. We haven’t been talking about the creative process for long, historically, not since Aristotle. Henry James, at the turn of the last century, was the first to analyze story components. And the poets? Keats makes an occasional mention of process. “Getting out of your own way” could have come from Trungpa Rinpoche, in the 1970s, in his talks with Allen Ginsberg.
With only thirty-five minutes for her story, Vivian’s creative unconscious picked a strategy, and nothing got in the way. There wasn’t time. She started at the beginning and went through to the end. Her editorial voices got put aside — no time for them! — her impulse to spell correctly got put aside — no time for that! — her worry about her character’s depth got put aside — no time for that! — her instinct to insert more flair got put aside — no time for that! Her conscious strategy to sharpen her best point got put aside — no time for that, either. None of this is an accident.
The potential for this easy confluence is always at our fingertips. It can happen any time, and nothing about it is an accident. Can we train ourselves to find it? Yes. Do we need to ignore the apologies and the screeching the editorial and writerly voices come up with, because they were ignored? Or circumvented by time? Yes. Or at least give them little credence.
And there’s history. Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was written on an envelope on the train, Martin Luther King discarded his prepared speech and wrote “I have a dream” as he listened to the other speakers, Paul Hawkins threw away his notes, too, and graduation morning wrote his inspiring commencement address, “Earth is Hiring.”
What’s the common element? Or rather, two elements. One, not thinking too much, there isn’t time for that. And two, these writers were in the immediate presence of their material. The temptation to waver their focus was non-existent.
So they wrote well. Very well.