Some surprises about writing

I had some really interesting conversations about writing yesterday, so I thought I'd use today's post to collect some of the ideas that came out of it, as well as some that I've just had kicking around for a while (and so, for reasons that are now satisfyingly meta, I wanted to write them down :)).

Writing helps you organize your thoughts:  It holds a mirror up to some of your hidden assumptions, and lets you "go back over" your internal processes and smooth out or correct things, in ways that just thinking or talking don't do.  When thinking or ralking, the "ticker-tape" of your ideas burns away as soon as you're past it, leaving just a whiff of it in the air; but when you write it down, it sticks around, and many truths can be learned by holding up what you're thinking now with what you thought before, even five minutes ago.  So, in a group of other constant-writers-who've-published-little, I realized with some surprise that it's not just me who finds immense value in writing even when it isn't and never becomes communication.  It gains more utility when you bring others into it, arguably; but as a single mind's attempt to think more clearly, writing on napkins and in never-opened-again files and such is actually a powerful tool all on its own.

When writing fiction, there are usually two layers of writing going on:  The story itself, which you're crafting out of plots, characters, and carefully-chosen words (such as engrossing descriptions and meaningful metaphors); and the "organization/thinking" writing that most (not all, but most) writers need to do "on the side" to create the world, give the characters background, iron out the plot points, etc.  You can see how, in stories where the writer either feels rushed, or feels very comfortable that they already have an audience (i.e. the sequel-books in a successful series), they often wind up publishing the latter — their notes, essentially; lots of infodump about what the world and the characters and the plots are, and much less actual story.  For every excellent, tight, engaging story out there, you can be pretty sure there's an equal amount of written material that never made it into the story / was never part of it, but rather is writing about it that the author had to do to get it organized.

Writing in poetic form is often "easier" for people than writing stories, because they're shorter and there's less there to edit, so you can "feel done" sooner.  But the depth of editing required to write a GOOD poem is much more than what's needed for a good story — a story can still be good if it says "and then" in one place when it shouldn't, or says "dark" when "dim" would be a better word — but those mistakes could ruin a poem.  The other occasional-poet I was talking with and I were forced to leave open the questions of whether poetry is actually easier to write or not, and whether writing "bad poetry" (i.e. most poetry; poetry that's ok in places but didn't get the machined-precise editing really good poetry needs) constitutes a useful writing exercise, or just laziness (failure to finish either a whole story or a proper poem).

* Editing is both the strength and the weakness of writing.  The potential to edit, to iterate and improve, makes writing potentially way more powerful than slung-out thoughts in other forms; but the difficulty of editing as a mental exercise means that writing often won't be able to take advantage of that strength, and will instead just wind up being only as good as most/other thoughts, but also nailed down and critiquable in ways that, say, the spoken word usually escapes.

*  On one level, editing your thoughts feels "less  honest" than simply writing/saying/expressing them; but seen another way, it feels MORE honest.  It's not like we don't edit ourselves anyway — we do, almost all the time, even without knowing it.  And when we edit as little as we possibly can — say, when we blurt "straight from the heart" — it may be more "honest" in the technical sense of coming more directly from the (perceived) source, but it's not always better — not even in the sense of being more accurately what we really think/feel/believe.  Unedited(-as-possible) ideas may be the results of our real feelings at that moment, but a good bit of the time, our awareness of those feelings isn't complete, fair, accurate or realistic — so do we really gain anything from presenting them more quickly and with less thought?  …At first our answer to this was something like, "ok, editing yourself is still honest, but if other people are editing your words…" –but then we quickly realized that no, all of this is communication, and having another person, another point of view, review and suggest ways to make what you're trying to say more clear, is way more often helpful than harmful (particularly if the editor is a pro at it).  The end result / idea, that actually, edited thoughts are quite possibly more honest ones, surprised us all!

*  Of the writers I was chatting with, one is doing NaNoWriMo (which I've done before, a few times), and I'm doing this, and the other two weren't currently doing anything particular to make themselves write every day.  I expected us to conclude that Mz NaNoWriMo was getting the most skill-benefit, I the second most, and the others none…but that turned out not to be true!  Since "writing" is a skill that encompasses many other, smaller skills (I guess like any art-form), there's lots there to practice…and what I'm practicing is arguably the part that I'm worst at:  finishing and publishing.  Kungfu and the killer book on learning skills, "The Inner Game of Tennis", both agree that to master a skill, you need to focus your practice where you need it, not where you're already comfortable.  The person doing NaNoWriMo and I are both getting daily writing in for a month, which all of us agreed is helpful — but one of the people-doing-nothing already has a good daily writing-habit, so didn't need that.  And is the NNWM writer just spewing more of the same stuff they're already comfortable with for a month, in greater volume; or is it being used to hone story-telling skills they need?  …I didn't get a chance to ask that bit, but it's a fascinating angle.  Really hammers home that effective skills-practice can't be codified, and looks different for everyone at different times in their development.


So those are today's thoughts, and hey, appropriately enough, they're better than they otherwise would be, thanks to bouncing them off of a couple other brains, and then organizing them into sentences (maybe not great sentences, but…improvement continues :P) here.


A NOTE ON THE LINK:  I linked to The Inner Game Of Tennis on GoodReads, where I do occasionally, not often but sometimes, rate and review books.  Most of my dead cold favorites are there.  Feel free to follow me / share books & ideas with me over there, if you like.

About puredoxyk

Word addict, kungfu/taiji nut, and life-partner to polyphasic sleep. Rabid fan of as many hobbies as the world will let me pry into its piddly fourth dimension (it helps to have knocked out the wall).
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