I’m watching a swan as it glides across the lake. The sun is out. The temperature is moderate. For February, in the Midwest, it’s not a bad day at all. I’m thinking about how our writing lives can sometimes be like this—effortless, beautiful—and how most of the time they aren’t.
For the most part, I spend my time trying to feel my way toward what I want to say. I’m not gliding at all. I’m stumbling, flailing, spinning in circles, all while paddling fiercely to stay afloat. I’m in the midst of a project now, and I’m writing willy-nilly—just writing whatever comes to me and ending up with these scraps and bits that I hope someday cohere. I’m waiting for the project to announce itself to me, and I’m willing to keep writing, convincing myself that by so doing I’ll finally reach the point where the waters will calm and I’ll gaze straight ahead, just floating along, knowing exactly where I’m going.
There are some things we can do to hasten our journey toward clarity. There are questions we can ask ourselves to take us further into our material. Take any writing project that you’re working on and see what happens when you try to answer these questions:
- What’s this about? Of course, there are probably at least two answers to this one. There’s the literal subject matter that you’re trying to shape, the one that allows you to provide a very concrete answer to this question, but there’s also the deeper subject that allows you to think about your material in a broader, more abstract way. This is the answer that taps into the question of how what we’re writing connects to our living. For example, we might say that James Joyce’s “The Dead” is about a holiday gathering on a winter’s night, but more than that it’s the story of our self-deceptions and those moments when we see ourselves as people quite different from the ones we thought we were.
- Why does this matter to me? The words that we write can seduce us into thinking that we’re writing about something with true significance, but where are we in that material? How does it connect to us and the significance of our lives?
- What have I not yet said? Challenge yourself to go deeper, to find the aspect of the material that you haven’t quite put on the page.
- What’s the contrary view? Apply this however you will, depending on your writing project, but keep in mind the objective is to somehow stand outside the material and to provide an opposing presence. Take for instance the character of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I’m always taken with the way such a cynical young person can also be such a loving, caring person with a desire to offer protection. Standing outside can often take us to illuminative moments where we see more completely. That’s what this question is meant to provide.
- How would my material taunt me? Here, the idea is to imagine your material as a bully. What would that bully say to you? What would he or she accuse you of being afraid of? The objective is to articulate your own fears and flaws via the imagined taunts. Get angry. Stand up to the bully. Admit your fears and shortcomings, and then set about writing your way out of them.
When I’m in the early stages of a writing project, I always fear that I’ll just keep floundering and never be able to do it justice. But I believe that our early drafts are always smarter than we are. They know exactly what they want to be, and they’re just waiting for us to know it, too. I offer these five questions in hopes that they’ll help you deepen your material. Sometimes, in the midst of an early draft, it’s a good idea for us to come up for air, take a look around, and think about what we’re writing and why.