So, when you listen to people who give life advice, it’s always the same old horseshit: follow your dreams, take risks, live every day like it’s your last, etc. Has anyone ever gotten anything they could use out of a commencement address, for instance? And because of that, I had long assumed that all true wisdom was ineffable: it could not be spoken–in fact, it could barely be formulated in words. And that still might be true! But I have come to realize that frequently when I make a breakthrough and hit a new level in any of my activities, I am able to distill the essence of that breakthrough into words.
For instance, I’ve recently started thinking about my stories in a completely different way. It’s become a kind of architectural process. Now whenever I am writing a story, the moment I can sense weakness, I stop, pull back, and see which element is the weak one. In most cases, the element is weak because I haven’t thought it out very well, so I can phrase my issue in the form of an unanswered question. For instance, one of the unanswered questions from a recently completed story was: “What exactly happens in the novel that the characters are reading inside the book?”
After I went through and thought about that for a long time (usually by trying out a bunch of things and going through some false starts), then I could solve it and keep writing. And then, almost immediately, I’d have to stop again. At each moment in the story-writing process, the weight is on one particular element: the weakest one. But the moment that I strengthen that element, the weight falls onto the next weakest one. This means that I can frequently only write a few hundred words farther before I have to stop again. Then, finally, when most of the questions are answered, I can blaze through to the end and finish it.
Now, that is an extremely comprehensible explanation of my (current) process. And it’s good that I’ve explained it, because now I can put it into practice in a more clear-minded way. It also prevents me from being frustrated when I work for days on a story and only make minimal progress. Because I realize that all those days of doing some hard thinking and writing just a few hundred words are just as much work as the days of breezing through and writing 3000 words.
But if someone had told me about this before I had figured it out myself, would I have been able to take advantage of it?
I know that for a fact, because I realized, while writing this blog post, that this is exactly the same metaphor and method (well, she calls it a wall instead of a bunch of columns) that Annie Dillard uses in her writing book. And I read that four years ago. At the time, it struck me, but I didn’t do anything with it. I had to figure it out myself in order for it to be of use.
I think that’s the nature of the conceptual breakthrough. You attach words to the process, but the words don’t fully describe the process. The reason it works has something to do with the specifics of the way you apply it: there’s something about it that’s uniquely suited to you.