The sun is at my back. A nylon-web belt is strapped around my waist, a six-foot dog-leash looped into it, and latched at the end of that leash is a 35-year-old yellow and blue tube with twin plastic handles and a thick corded rope. My toes curl over the edge of an old, but sturdy, wooden dock and I am contemplating my near-future. Only one minute of it – not a second more.
I wrote the above paragraph without thinking, letting memory take me where it would. If I get a chance to think about it – which ordinarily I would not do until at least two hours later – I would write:
The sun is at my back, weathered dock boards under my feet and next to me lies a tube that should have been punctured over 30 years ago, the kind used for towing screaming children behind boats. A six-foot length of leash binds me to this tube and I stand here contemplating the next minute of my life, only a minute, and not a second more.
That’s Take Two – and now only seconds later, I am editing it in my head. There are many ways to shake some words onto the keyboard, but the simplest is the best – the answer to writer’s block – just do it, even if you do it poorly.
For the truth is this: Pure brilliant writing is a rarity – writers with volumes behind them can list only a handful of inspired moments where the words flew onto the page effortlessly. All their other pages, the ones that pulled you in, were just flotsam that drifted in from the soup inside their skulls. They cast a practised eye at the thing that appeared on the page, and then tentatively spun it about, looking for signs of life, and then reworked it, like a baker kneading dough, massaging it until a strange chemical magic transforms wet and dry ingredients into an altogether new thing. They keep going until their fingers feel a certain feathery softness in the dough’s skin, and the heels of their hands recognise its yield and then suddenly, the dough has just the right ‘spring,’ and there it is – something wonderful.
So fold the laundry, call your mother, walk the dog, then sit down and write about that. Just that, the first moments of those things and don’t worry about the next line, paragraph or page. Just start with the memory and if it’s a useless memory, as far your writing goals are concerned, consider that it only looks useless today. It is the beginning and everything has that – a beginning. Let the worries about the middle and the end come later.
I used the standing-on-the-dock memory because it is so much like writing.
I swim in a cold northern lake. The first dive in will drive my blood away from my limbs and into my chest, a physiological fact that carries with it some degree of risk* – it’s not unheard of for people diving into cold water to pass out or even trigger a jackknife response from the assault on their cardiac system. Not that any of this is likely to happen to me, but the body knows what the mind denies and my body knows I don’t absolutely have to jump off that dock. It is always trying to talk me out of it.
And yet I do jump, most often within seconds of curling my toes around the edge of those boards (and after a quick survey of the water to make sure I’m not going to collide with a passing snapper or submerged beaver).
Here’s how I do it: I don’t have any intention of swimming more than a minute. I know that yesterday I swam around the point and into the next bay, soaring over amber sand and rounded stones, arching a little here to avoid a branch that dips into the lake and a little there to avoid the underwater wild rice forest. But that was yesterday; today – and every day – I would rather be up on the deck sipping coffee and reading T.C. Boyle. So I promise myself – just one minute in the lake and then I’ll have my coffee.
But here’s the thing: Once I’m in the lake, once the shock of it has worn a little, the memory of yesterday takes over and I decide I will swim just up to an underwater boulder about 40 feet away and then I will turn back.
This is a lie. I don’t turn back. I stroke past the boulder, taken away by the sheer joy of swimming, the closest thing to human-powered flying that a person can ever attain. One minute becomes 30; 30 can become 45, and 45 slips over to an hour, sometimes more.
And so it is with writing: Sit down and write a line. That’s all, just one line. You can do it. One line can multiply into paragraphs, pages, chapters, a story, even a book. But it doesn’t have to. It can just be one beautiful, simple line.
Do you need an audience to motivate you? Hit the Contact form at the bottom of this page and send it to me if you like. I’ll say something about it.
And for a truly eloquent piece on following off a simple memory, read this from Carla Funk, Victoria’s former Poet Laureate who fell through a chimney and lived to write about it.
Tomorrow: What professional writers do when they’re stuck.
- I wasn’t making up the cold water response bit – here’s a Harvard Medical doctor’s plain talk on the phenomenon.