We belong to an impatient culture. We don’t wait for anything if we can help it, and if we have to wait, we tap our feet, sigh, and complain. Sitting and thinking that doesn’t lead to immediate action is “wasting time” or “naval gazing” or “daydreaming.”
We have lost sight of the value in waiting.
You know how sometimes it seems like the universe contrives to make you notice something by bringing it to your attention multiple times in a short span of time? (For example: After not hearing it or thinking about it for YEARS, I heard the phrase “like putting lipstick on a pig” three times from three different places, in one day.)
This idea has been haunting me lately:
A very common mistake in novel writing is to start writing before you are ready.
And (like “lipstick on a pig”) it’s coming at me from different places…
In his book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy writes that he sits with his novels for a year before doing any actual writing. He creates character boards, takes notes, makes maps, and thinks–for a year. When he does actually start writing, he knows his characters and their world inside and out.
Ursula K. LeGuin claims that writers get “grabby” in her book The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Writers get the first notions of an idea, seize the idea, and begin to write too soon. She insists on the importance of waiting to discover the rhythm of the piece you’re working on. This has to do with discovering your protagonist fully (LeGuin knew she had discovered her characters when she could identify ways they were different from herself…an interesting idea…), the syntax of your sentences, and the overarching pattern of the larger story. Once you have the rhythm, she says, it’s almost impossible to write a wrong word.
LeGuin waited. She sat at her desk, listening for the voices of her protagonists, their cadences. From the outside, it looked like she was being lazy. Wasn’t she a writer? Why wasn’t she writing? She was wasting time. Daydreaming. Put some words on the page, already!
In my typical process, the early stages of any piece are writing: experiencing events as the sentences unroll themselves into scene, dialogue, and description. The kind of sentence and its quality don’t matter much. I write only what’s necessary to spark an idea in my mind.
I don’t want to plan it out, I want to live it, right now, in this moment. I don’t want to get to know the characters, I just want to know everything they do. I want to peel them open like cadavers, not understand them as humans.
I want the story, and I want it now.
I write half-assed dialogue, skimp on description, and pay no attention to mood or subtext.
This mindset is all about my experience. It’s selfish. Impatient.
I could make a case that it’s a result of living in this fast-paced, hyper-consumeristic society, in which convenience trumps quality. But finding somewhere to place blame doesn’t help me be a better writer.
I can see the negative effects of not waiting before writing clearly in long pieces I’m working on. My lack of understanding–my lack of respect–is like anemia: it’s weakening everything in the story.
I wish I had come across this idea years ago.
I also wish there was a more definite way to know when you had done enough sitting in silence, listening to the echoes of your imagination, a way to know when you were ready to put aside the markers and glue and pick up the laptop. I wish there were steps to follow or bumpers, like in bowling, to keep you moving in the right direction.
If wishes were fishes, we’d all swim in riches.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If wishes were stories, we’d all be Stephen King.
LeGuin says that writers must be able trust themselves. We need to know our own skills, our intentions, and believe in our ability to carry them out. We must also be able to trust the story, that it will emerge as something greater than we could have planned.
Maybe if we learn to trust our work, and ourselves, and ignore the howls of society (hurry hurry do write finish sell publish market fame fortune repeat) we’ll be able to sense when we are prepared to enter into a long story.
Waiting is doing something.
This is a countercultural idea. This is a countercultural writing process. But I wonder if the more we listen, the more sure we become. The less noise we allow in, the more we can hear of what counts. With patience, the profound.
I’ve been sitting on a really cool cyborg pirate story for a while now. Rather than grabbing it by the horns, I think I’ll try sitting with it first. Getting to know it. Building trust and listening and waiting.
Write it? Maybe next year…