Sometimes writing is an art, a delicate dance through eloquent turns of phrase. Rhythm takes over and pulls the thoughts from your heart and pours them out like a river rushing over a dam, changing them into images drawn with choice vocabulary words as they fall and splash into foamy waves. It feels freeing, almost transcendent.
But sometimes it feels like labor, like chopping down a tree that’s blocking your view; you spend more time planning where to strike first with the axe so it falls in the direction you want, arranging ropes and setting things up just so. But then you start, and you realize you have no control over where it’s going, so you tie it to a truck and hope it’s big enough to pull the trunk in the safest direction before it’s too late. Then you have this giant tree carcass to deal with, first clipping and pruning away the excess leafy bits that take up your whole yard until you finally get to the thicker branches and the trunk. Those you hack into rough cuts of firewood with a chainsaw.
You spend days and days hacking and cutting and splitting and piling and you never have a chance to look up and see the view, because your hands have splinters and your back aches, and you start to think it’s all about the firewood. You’re building piles and stacking everything just so.
And then you realize that you don’t have a fireplace, and so you spend all of your time trying to figure out what to do with the logs, attempting to build things or sell them, but in the end you just give them away or let them rot where they lay.
If you’re lucky, you’ll finally remember to look up and enjoy the view. But most of the time, you just look up in time to realize that you cut down the wrong tree, and that it was another tree in your way, and you have to start all over again. But because you’re tired of that, you try to use the rotting logs to build a structure high enough that you can see over the top of the next tree, but the pieces are wrong for the task and no matter what you do, they just don’t work, and so you spend all of your efforts demolishing and rebuilding your structure.
That’s what writing it like for me right now. I’m working on a paper that’s a little outside of my area of study, and I’m swimming upstream. I know in my gut that there’s something important in it, but I can’t see it clearly. I’m trying to write my way to whatever it is, and I’m not even sure I’m facing the right direction. I’m writing, and outlining, and editing, and rewriting, and re-outlining and starting over again and again. There’s no art here, just obstacles and work and rough sentences and Sisyphean repetition, and all I can do is try to hack my way through it.
Even this tree metaphor I’m working feels clunky, but I’m going to keep at it for now, because if I’m very lucky, once I’ve gotten all of the bad ideas out of my system, I’ll be able to give in, and let the trees be. Instead of working against them, I’ll simply find the right one and climb it until I can see all around with clear eyes. Because writing, when it feels good, isn’t about creation ex nihilo, but clearing away my excessive machinations so that I can be free and open to the ideas and stories that bubble forth.
But I still need to find the right tree. Right now, I’m hacking up the wrong one to build up some rough structure to climb instead, thinking that maybe if I get high enough, I’ll see where I need to go.
And then I’ll have to start all over.