Those of you who follow my posts know that I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. A week or so ago, I drew an analogy between writing a paper and chopping down a tree (when really you should be climbing it). It was appropriately rough, performing its own confusion and frustration. Well, I’ve finished the paper that inspired that post, and now that it’s off my mind, I thought I’d try another metaphor. Writing, especially academic writing, isn’t so much like trying to see the forest for the trees (I’m starting to think that’s research and note taking) as it is like trying to climb a mountain.
You know there’s something awesome at the top, but you have to climb your way up there. It’s hard, but you like climbing. You like to hear your heart beating in your ears as you get progressively colder, you like to stop and look around at the progress you’ve made, and always, you’re pushing yourself to get to the top. It’s hard, but you know you just have to battle your way through.
Writing a first draft is a lot like this. Sometimes you have to just press on, even though the road is steep and the path is coming loose beneath your feet. You know where you want to get, and so you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, spurred on by the promise of the progress you’ve already made.
And you’ve put so much work in, and you’ve come this far, so it’s not like you’re really going to turn back.
And so you keep pushing, even if you’re tired, even if you’re not really sure you like climbing anymore, even though you’re now so high up that you’re wearing winter gear in the middle of August, eyeing up the Arctic plant life.
And then finally, it happens. You reach the summit, and oh, you are proud of yourself. You’ve reached the point where everything is on the table, and you’ve made it to your conclusion, and you know just what you’ve been trying to say all along. The view is spectacular, and there’s nothing between you and the lay of the land.
But sometimes, once you’re done celebrating and actually stop to take in the view, what you see when you get there isn’t all that exciting. Sometimes all you see is the same stuff you saw on the way up. Sometimes you don’t see anything at all.
Oh. Say, where’s that view I was promised?
Sometimes you get to the end of a paper, and you realize that all you’ve done is confuse yourself further. You squint and you wait for the fog to clear, but sometimes it doesn’t. There’s always something gained in writing your way through confusion though, even if you don’t come away with any clarity.
That’s what editing is for, and that’s why editing is where the real work happens; it’s the descent. When you climb a mountain – even a small one like the ones I’ve climbed – you have a certain momentum on the way up, an exhilaration that keeps you pushing forward. The descent seems like it should be easier – after all, you’re no longer climbing, but heading downhill, no longer generating new ideas, but making changes to existing material.
But when you’ve just climbed a mountain, and your muscles are aching, and your knee hurts, the descent can be utter torture. Going down a mountain is often far more difficult that climbing it. It can be boring and repetitive, as you only see where you’ve already been, and you get to cringe in anticipatory agony when you know what’s coming next is steep and loosely structured. Sometimes you have to take an entirely new path, and it feels like you’re right back where you started.
But what you gain on the way down, on every painful step, lowering yourself down slowly and gingerly, is clarity. You start to understand the mountain. You’re no longer looking up at the summit, but retracing your steps with greater care and attention than you gave them on your way up.
And that’s when you can see the beauty.
That’s when you glimpse truths and ideas you didn’t even know you had in you.
You get to luxuriate in passages you raced through without thinking, appreciating them more now that you’ve been to the top and know how essential they are to the project.
Or you turn a different corner, forging a new path, and look out at truths that you couldn’t see on your way up, but that you would never have gotten to if you hadn’t made it to the top.
It’s a bit like getting to your conclusion and realizing that your argument was something else entirely. You didn’t see it as your were writing, but you would never have made that realization if you hadn’t written your way through.
When you feel that ache and that exhaustion, when you’re leaving your wondrous conclusion behind, that’s when you’re really able to see what you had in you all along.
And sometimes, it feels like magic.