Why Some Writers Are Doomed To Obscurity
It wasn’t until I became a parent quite late in life that I began to observe closely some things to do with children that apply more widely to the behaviour of human beings, and particularly to writers.
I noticed with my young daughter how she was always in the ‘Now’, always relishing the moment, always keen to have things happen straight away. She went through a period when she was about three years old of simply not understanding, and totally rejecting, anything to do with the idea of waiting for anything: if she wanted something, she could not grasp that there had to be a delay of any kind. Why were not her desires immediately fulfilled? Why could not her bottle of milk appear instantaneously? Why was there a gap between wanting a toy that was upstairs and having that toy in her hands?
Later, I continued to observe that any task that she undertook was centred around the pleasure it gave her, rather than the end result. For example, in sweeping a floor, what excited her wasn’t the idea of a clean floor, but the action of sweeping itself; what amused her about tidying up wasn’t the concept of a clean and orderly room, but the notion of all the toys she would discover and play with along the way. Thus clean floors or tidy rooms became more distant prospects than they might have otherwise been.
Taking heed of this, I then took my observations into the world of teaching, where, at that time, I was occupied during the day with conveying the joys of English literature to bunches of teenagers in a secondary school. And I noticed that the same kind of thing was happening there. I had always been aware of the frustrations of trying to get young people to produce finished pieces of work within a set time period - some seemed simply unable to do so, and would still fail repeatedly when the time limit was extended. This was par for the course in teaching, it appeared, especially where those mysterious things called ‘essays’ were concerned. But now, equipped with these notes from contemplating my young daughter’s behaviour, I began to glimpse why these things happened (or didn’t happen).
The same thing was occurring: the teenagers were preoccupied with the Now, with what was in front of them directly, with, in most cases, trying to squeeze from each moment of each day the maximum pleasure permissible within social contexts, or at least to avoid pain or discomfort as much as possible. It was all about The Moment. Very few seemed capable of thinking about the Future, the result, the product, the finished article further down the road; almost all were only interested in the particular minute they were in, or the next few minutes at best. Thus my oft-repeated advice that they should get their homework assignments done at the beginning of holiday periods, so that they could then relax and enjoy the break without having to worry about them, always fell on deaf ears. And when I say ‘always’, I mean always: I taught for 17 years and not once did any child report to me that they had followed my advice in this respect. I began to see that those whom I regarded as the ‘conscientious’ students, the ones who tended to hand work in on time and do more or less what was required of them, were doing so not because they had extracted themselves from ‘the Moment’ and were looking at the product that they could achieve further down the road, but were more often than not managing to take pleasure in doing the task in each succeeding minute. In other words, at no point in my experience were these students thinking about the product or the finished piece of work - they had just figured out ways of enjoying the process within a given time frame.
This happens outside a school context too. Writers experience this all the time. And, I might add, writers suffer because of it.
Because a vital part of putting together an effective piece of anything, whether it be a work of art or car engine or a set of shelves or a pleasant garden is being able to clearly envisage the end result. Without that vision, one is inclined to wander. The wandering can be, and usually is, an enjoyable experience - but it also often ends up with the wanderer becoming lost.
I have spoken with and dealt with thousands of writers over the years, and in most cases their relationship with their writing could best be described as an ‘immersion in the process’. They go into a kind of trance, in the vast majority of cases, and allow a sort of ‘flow’ to occur, through which something which they usually describe as the ‘imagination’ takes control of their fingers and permits them to convert a special category of thinking into words on a page or screen. This is, of course, a significant part of the joy of writing; for many, it is all the joy of it. The idea that there is anything else to do after one has emerged from the trance with a raw manuscript in front of one, is often considered an anathema.
And that is up to them. But if those same writers then complain that no one buys or reads their books, they must look further at what has occurred. They have immersed themselves in a very private process, an introversion which has created an outer artefact, a document. The document that results from that process may or may not be of interest to another, or even comprehensible to another. If the writer is lucky, or is attuned to readers in a special way, the document may contain patterns and codes which will delight others. But more often than not, that first, raw clump of wordage which emerged from the depths of a writer’s mind in that initial writing process will need shaping: editing, moulding, refining, designing, so that what results is appealing to and resonant with readers.
This is the other way of thinking, the way that my young daughter and all those teenagers were unable to grasp: the envisioning of a product, a completed item that may be of interest to others, further down the road of Time. The milk bottle arrives later; the toy comes a few minutes into the future; the essay is a finished piece of work which will be shaped and finalised over a set period of time. For successful writers - that is, writers who are bought and read by millions - a completed story is not usually only the thing that crept out of their imaginations while they were immersed, but also, after that draft emerged, a planned thing, a future concept made real through craft, an ideal picture brought into being by the actions of a craftsman or craftswoman.
So the blank look that I sometimes get when I talk about ‘craft’ is explained: craft is what happens when you step back from the Moment, when you take a broader look than the Now, when you decide, usually much more consciously, what you are going to end up with and why. Believe it or not, there is a joy in this too - it’s a different kind of process. It’s perhaps the opposite of immersion, which is why many writers (and young children and teenage students) find it so difficult to do and so protest it: one has to pull right out of the Moment and conceive a future result. If the immersion process involves one part of the imagination, this next step must involve another; in the first, the writer permits an open flow, but in the second a rational spotlight is switched on and shone on the work.
You can perform a simple test to better grasp the idea of this. Take a pencil (hopefully your own and one that you don’t need or value) and snap it in half. Now hold up that broken pencil and project onto it the image you have in your mind of a perfect pencil. All those points at which the broken pencil deviates from the image of perfection in your mind are the ones which would need to be repaired, were you to set about fixing the pencil. It’s the same with your first draft. You need to hold it up to the light of what you conceive of as the perfect story, the story that will enthral and entrance readers, and where you see departures, get to work.
Otherwise you're left with a broken pencil, a manuscript that was wonderful while it lasted but which no one will read.
If my daughter could have envisaged a clean floor, her sweeping might have been modified. She could still take joy in it, but now have a result from it as well. The same with those teenage essays: they could have been done, and checked, and rewritten as needed, until they were all as perfect as possible, so that the joy of writing them became twofold - the flow and the shaping (and the resultant better response from the teacher). And so it is with stories: you can have all the enjoyment, the exhilaration, the ecstasy of immersing yourself in the work as you write - but you can also have the sculptor’s joy, the passion for shape, the knowledge that you are crafting something even more beautiful (and attractive, and readable) as well.
For advice about expert craftsmanship for stories, see my book, How Stories Really Work.