Friday, April 10, 2009

A Bold New Metaphor

This morning, I had a revelation. I would go into greater detail about how this revelation came to me, but I imagine you’ll be able to figure it out on your own by the end of this post.

I’ve read a lot of writing books. There are times, in fact, when I suspect that I have read all of the writing books. The thing I’ve noticed, over and over again, is how each book comes up with its own metaphor for the process of writing.

Writing is a battle, says one book, a battle against the invisible forces of resistance that imperil the efforts of all would-be artists. Or maybe writing is a journey. Or writing is like assembling a skeleton. Stephen King says writing is like an excavation, a slow process of discovery in which the writer unearths a story without any idea of the final shape or form until the entire damn mammoth is free of the ground. I particularly like that metaphor, because as any paleontologist can tell you, they usually only ever find half of the skeleton.

I can relate.

But this morning, I discovered my own metaphor, and I’m quite enamored of it. Writing, my friends, is like taking a shit.

Bear with me.

It’s time. Whether you’ve been putting it off all day, or you’ve jumped eagerly into the gap, it doesn't matter. When it’s time, it’s time.

You sit. Perhaps you’re filled with dread, or maybe a sense of boundless optimism. But whatever preconceived notions you had about how this was supposed to go, reality soon knocks those ideas aside. You never know what you’re going to get until you get it.

Especially on Those Days. You know Those Days.

On Those Days you huddle there, prepared to give from the deepest part of yourself. But as long as you sit, and as hard as you try, nothing’s coming. You’re blocked. You look down at what you’ve produced, a tiny dark splotch on a field of white, and you think: That can’t be it! I know I’ve got more in me than that!

So you redouble your efforts. You struggle and you strain, you curse and make vows and sometimes you even bargain with God a little, if that’s your cup of tea. And slowly, with great effort and much gnashing of teeth, you produce. And when you’re done, and you survey the results, you’re left with a single, inescapable fact: Jesus Christ, it stinks. It’s a horrible, ghastly mess, and you wouldn’t show it to anyone, not even if they begged you. And you hit the switch and away it goes, hopefully never to be seen again. Though, these things do have a way to popping back up to the surface.

Then there are those Other Days. Far more rare, but they make it all seem worthwhile.

You sit down, and everything inside you is practically bursting to get out. You don’t even have to try, it just flows out of you, like magic. It feels natural, instinctual, and when you look over what you’ve accomplished, a slow, simple warmth builds in your chest. You’re proud. Proud of yourself. And other people may think it stinks, but not you. You think it’s wonderful. You finish up and go on about the rest of your day, grateful and happy, and even if you accomplish nothing else before bedtime, it doesn’t really matter. You bounce through the world, feeling ten pounds lighter.

And both activities demand a unique schedule of everyone. Some people can spend all day working something out. Others can only squeeze in fifteen minutes, here and there. Still others find that skipping a day between sessions is a healthy approach. Personally, I find that the best time is early in the morning, every single day, and that a good cup of coffee is universally helpful.

Of course, like all metaphors, this one starts to fall apart under too much examination. For instance, I’ve never actually defecated into an envelope and sent it to a publishing house, though I am sure there are a few editors who would argue the contrary. Also, I had a hard time coming up with a good writerly equivalent to washing my hands. Although literally washing one's hands after writing is probably not a bad idea.

Because, really, who knows what kind of germs are living on your keyboard. It’s disgusting, if you think about it.