A mainstream writer, who shall remain nameless (only because I have, mercifully, forgotten his name), equated writing with forging horseshoes. A writer was a wordsmith, he said, which was just like being a blacksmith. It took sweat, discipline and brute strength, and there was nothing remotely mysterious or mystical about it. Quoth the maven, “hard work, and nothing more.”
It’s not a bad metaphor in many ways; writing is a lot like forging horseshoes, but I think this particular maven forgot one essential element of that homely process — fire. Without this component, the iron the blacksmith desires to mold will lie dark, cold, inert, and unwilling to be shaped. Without fire, all the craft in the world will not bring forth white-hot brilliance. Without fire, our literary horses go unshod.
Writers talk about the “fire” element — inspiration or idea — in a number of different ways. Crime writer Lawrence Block says that at times
“…I see myself more as a channel than a source, conveying stories from some unknowable well… Perhaps everything we would write already exists in perfect form; it emerges on the page in one degree or another of imperfection, depending upon the extent to which we are open channels.” (SPIDER SPIN ME A WEB)
Ursula K. LeGuin, BVC author and a living treasure among writers of any genre, commented in her introduction to LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS that the protagonist, Genly Ai, walked into her office, sat down, and told her his story.
I’ve experienced this myself. Driving home from work one day, I found myself listening to an insistent voice in my head informing me that he was Taco Del, Merlin to His Majesty, King of Embarcadero, that he had a story to tell me, and that I’d darn well better listen. While he chattered on, I drove home at warp speed, begging him to keep talking until I could get to writing utensils. A short while later, TACO DEL AND THE FABLED TREE OF DESTINY emerged from my printer as a 20,000+-word novella that was published in Amazing Stories. Since then, I’ve turned the novella into a 100,000 word novel (which is available from the Book View Café eBookstore, Amazon and iBooks.)
This is often the way ideas are born; this is where the fire is ignited. Despite the anonymous nay-sayer’s protestation, this has nothing to do with craft, but is the raw stuff of imagination.
I, for one, find writing an intensely mystical and spiritual experience at its best. I am not just handling the fire, I am channeling it.
The wild story of Taco Del, Merlin of Embarcadero, did not leap from my brow fully formed, however. I had to haul it down out of the clouds and forge it into a story.
This is where craft comes in. Oh, and a little thing called discipline. If it’s passion that drives the writer to work, it’s discipline that keeps her there, fanning the flames and pounding at the sometimes uncooperative elements until they take coherent form.
On this subject, mainstream writer Deborah Hecht has said that no one on earth can keep a writer from writing. I respectfully disagree. There is one person who can keep a writer from writing — the writer herself.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that discipline is something many aspiring writers lack. I’ve critiqued writers who had drawers full of unfinished stories, often because they did not possess the self-discipline to set goals, organize their thoughts, or take any other steps that would bring their writing to fruition. This is understandable: it’s sometimes more pleasant to think about writing than to actually write — in much the same way that it’s more pleasant to think about exercising than it is to actually work out. But like physical muscles, the mental muscles necessary for discipline have to be used in order to remain usable.
Certainly, my mystically challenged colleague is right about craft: sometimes that’s all that stands between the writer and the blank page. Sometimes the fire is hard to fan and the words are as hard to shape as a cold iron rod. But even then, there is a certain savage joy in craft, itself. A heat-generating sense that you are meeting a challenge, using the Force, molding inert material to your will.
That can be exhilarating and gratifying, if not as thrilling as thrusting your irons into the eternal flame. And if that’s all Mr. Wordsmith has ever experienced, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for him.
I write for a living, and there is always an element of fear attached to this reality that someday I will find that the fire has gone out leaving me to pound out words through brute force. I pray that day never comes. Which reminds me of an amusing quote from writer Sidney Sheldon:
A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.
Next time I’d like to talk some more about inspiration and craft and go a little into the tools of the writers trade: words.