July 9, 2014

Embracing the Hard

There is a funny mystique about writing.  When I think about writers I imagine the life as romantic -- a quiet place, a contemplative author, a message spilling forth from the abundant fountain of words the writer carries within.

I do it all the time even knowing, from personal experience, that it's a big bunch of hooey.

Writing is no easier, or beautiful, or magical than any other creative task.  And some days it's not any more romantic or wonderful than laying bricks.  Some days that's what it feels like, including getting hot and sweaty as you lay the words down in a line with kids in the background fighting over whose turn it is for the game station.

And if it's hard for me, I assume it's just ME.  There is something wrong with ME, because I'm certain that JK Rowling and Stephen King are just sitting around with umbrella drinks or fancy coffee typing 180wpm while listening to classical music and being caressed by a perfect spring breeze through open windows facing the beach or a mountain view.  Oh, and their first drafts are ALWAYS perfect.

I'm certain this is how it is for every writer except me.

And so every morning in the shower I whine pathetically to myself about how hard writing is because I have trouble plotting.  Plotting is my nemesis.  There are writers out there who could plot while disarming a nuclear bomb under heavy fire without breaking a sweat.  I'm not one of those.  For me, it's an uphill battle constantly.  I am in love with the imagery of writing, of building characters and animating them.  These are my strengths and these tasks come easy for me.  And probably because they do I get angry because the rest doesn't come easy. In my weak moments it smacks of unfairness and, yes, I complain.  (Although I generally try not to do it out loud. Sort of like what I'm doing at this very moment.)

Lately I have been reading The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman.)  And it's fascinating because the entire plot is "a big group of boys walk down the road as an endurance competition that only one can win and survive." That's it -- the entire book is a group of boys walking down a road. If you came up to me and told me to write a story about boys walking down the road, I'd assume you'd left out part of the instructions.  But King manages to create a grim, robust miracle out of that single idea.

This book made me think of other stories like it, with plots that are spare but stories that are fat, juicy.  Doris Lessing wrote a wonderful story ("Through the Tunnel") about a boy's efforts to swim through an underwater tunnel.  There is little more action to it than that and yet I read this story when I was a teenager and never forgot it.  Same with Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (spoiler alert) about a man's visions while dying. Then there is the fascinating and unforgettable "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien -- stories revealed by what Vietnam soldiers carried in action.

I'm sure there are more, but those ran through my mind as I pondered how such a big story can come from a small seed and how easy it is to make an excuse out of what you consider a shortcoming.  George R.R. Martin's Thrones series is amazing in scope, but it is no more wondrous than making a memorable, expansive story about boys walking down a road.

So what, plotting is uncomfortable for me.  So is being a runner with one leg and yet how many marathoners overcome that "little inconvenience."  The romance is not the writer sitting in a quiet, bookshelf lined study.  The romance is the sweaty writer who overcomes the challenge and gets the job done, who makes an amazing story out of nothing.  That's the magic.

Under the rain of the shower as I leaned my head against the cold tile I thought of Steinbeck and Atwood and King and Jackson and O. Henry and all the other authors I love and how they are allowed to be called writers because they didn't let "the hard" get in the way of revealing the story.  The statue doesn't come out of the stone unless you whack it with a hammer and reveal what's underneath.

But you have to keep whacking or else all you have is just a hunk of rock.