I woke this morning from a dream so real I could taste the words I’d been speaking in my throat. It’s a recurring dream—not the actual events or settings, but the theme and tenor—a bank of images that appear every so often when I’m avoiding writing something that wants to be written. I wasn’t suprised to have dreamt what I did, because I’ve been feeling this story pulsing in me lately, demanding to be told.
Why do you write?
There are a million reasons to write, but the one I hear most often, and the one that resonates with me, is: I feel compelled.
There’s no explanation or reasoning behind it—it’s more intuitive than that, more instinctual.
Writing is a way of placing yourself in the world. It isn’t that your stories or world is more interesting or unique than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s using words to make sense of, and understand, life and its myriad intricacies.
If I love it so much, why is it so difficult?
We live in a world that places value on output. Our culture also values external success: publication, advances, film options, bestseller lists, etc. We are daily barraged by clickbait stories of “overnight” sensations and 30-under-30 lists and the next big thing. It’s a commercial world, and in the world of commerce, it can sometimes be very hard to trust the small, still voice within that wants to (slowly) tell a story.
I’ve written the story of this recurring dream a few times, from a few different angles. Different characters, different settings, different outcomes. All of them feel good and real and right.
But I know the story isn’t done telling itself, because my subconscious keeps flinging it back in my face. There’s more to unearth. Slowly. Slowly.
Stories that Hunt
“It feels very physical as well as metaphysical, this gnawing. It’s a kind of torturous but oddly pleasant pestering. A multiple orgasm that won’t stop. A swarm of bees, or ants that just won’t let up their ruthless pursuit. Sometimes you know why they are after you, and other times it’s just maddening that they have chosen you to pursue. But I am not interested in work that does not stalk or hunt me. It has to want me as much as I want it or there’s no value in the relationship.”
That line about work that hunts stays with me. I’ve asked myself over and over the last few months why I’m writing what I’m writing now. And the answer I keep coming back to is: Because.
It seems silly, a petulant teenage response from the part of me that wants to be trusted. And yet, I honor it.
Prey does not ask Why. Nor does the predator. It’s a finely calibrated dance of instinct.
Stories that Rise
I believe in ghosts. Or, rather, more accurately, I believe in energy, and in the principle of Conservation of Mass: “Mass can neither be created nor destroyed.” It may be because of this, or because of other parts of my personality, but I often feel my stories physically. They gather around me. They can be soothing or pesky or both. They can give me chills or set me on edge or fill me with peace.
Sometimes a story will rise—from somewhere, who knows where—and envelop me. Like a cloud or fumes. There’s a certain form of patience required to feel this type of story. If you are rushing (and aren’t we all?), you might rush right through the effervescence and miss what it has to tell you.
Stories that Circle
Not unlike stories that hunt, a story that circles will tail you. It’ll nip at your heels and beg for attention. But here there’s a playfulness, a sense of engagement. These stories are less direct and more friendly, but should nonetheless be acknowledged. Like a dog bearing a bone, these stories have something for you, if only you’ll listen.
Slow Writing, in Practice
One of the things I see a lot with my students and clients, is the desire to “get published.” It’s a great goal, and definitely something to work towards, but I remind them: the writing is more important.
As impressed as I am by masterpieces that come out pretty clean on the first try, they’re not the majority. What impresses me more are writers who take their time, who wait for the work to truly become itself, who are patient and do not rush.
Good art is meant to last lifetimes; it is unreasonable to expect it will be created in a day (or a year for that matter).
I have to remind myself all the time: publication is not the be-all-end-all of the writing process. It’s a step along the path.
Slow writing means taking the time to see a story form, to coax a shape from it, to give characters the space to become themselves. When you are writing slow, you are listening, feeling, breathing in the story.
There is no rush.
The more quietly you wait, showing up every day, the more the story will know you want to tell it authentically. It will come.
Bit by bit. Dream by dream, Circle by circle.
I know. I’m in it too.
P.S. Here’s a great infographic from Electric Literature with how long some famous novels took to write. The Catcher in the Rye took ten years! Another that comes to mind: all of Donna Tartt’s novels.