There’s a shape to writing, and that shape is a pear.
No, I’m kidding. To be fair, writing does go pear-shaped, almost every day if I’m honest, but rare are the days when it doesn’t turn around and end up feeling productive or enlightening or, at the very least, right to have written, even on the days when the writing is total bollocks. But to say that writing is pear-shaped is to oversimplify in the worst way. It’s calling a baby a factory for poop and tears and snot. It’s calling a puppy a factory for poop and vomit and midnight barking. It’s calling my car a lumbering bucket of soon-to-be-rusted-and-worthless bolts.
Also, to call writing pear-shaped is to essentially say writing is fruity, and it’s certainly not that. Fruit can’t shave away at your soul like writing does. Fruit can’t make you feel impossibly brilliant and numbingly stupid in an instant. At its best, fruit is delicious but transient. It doesn’t stay with you.
No, I think writing is not so much a shape as a line. Specifically, it’s a line describing a downward arc through the depths of the soul and the psyche. You start high, full of motivation and ambition and giddy thoughts that you’re writing the best thing ever, that the story will be momentous and the characters transcendent and the themes and the symbolism and the echoes of the real world will reverberate through the annals of literature, or, at the very least, score you an interview segment on Conan. You start at the top.
Then the work begins and you lose steam. You start to struggle. You realize that writing is hard. That it’s incredibly difficult to write believable characters, that making multiple plotlines weave together is as easy as playing Chinese Checkers blindfolded, that the nuts and bolts of your narrative make as much sense as a box of chocolates without the label card. You bite into this thing and you don’t know if you’re getting coconut or caramel or a goldfingered disgusting cherry. Then you get halfway through your draft and it gets really hard. The characters are stupid. Your idea is stupid. Your narrative might as well be a bile-soaked hairball for all that you want to try and straighten it out, and the end you imagined makes about as much sense as the Duck-Billed Platypus. And down, down, down you slide.
But you FINISH. And you float there for a moment, translucent and gleeful, basking in the fact that you finished this monolith task. Slew the mammoth. Ate the five-pound steak. And then you re-read the thing and you realize it’s even worse than you feared, and DOWN, DOWN, DOWN you slide, all the way to the bottom, where maybe one day you finish the thing, and it’s terrible and crippled and ugly and squealing and you feel like you really should put it out of its misery but you spent so much time on it that maybe you ought to just send it out, and then the bottom really, finally, truly, for realsies, drops the fargo out and you plummet into the all-consuming black hole at the bottom of your self-doubting soul.
No, that’s not right.
Writing is a line, but it doesn’t arc downward. It curls up, like the pointy ends of Snidely Whiplash’s majestic mustache. You start at the bottom. Your idea, ill-formed. Your characters, half-baked. Your voice uncertain. But you pick the ball up and begin to write. For days, you struggle. You fight the momentum of non-productiveness and you urge the story forward, bit by agonizing bit. And then a little miracle happens. The lights start to come on. The engine turns on, splutters, then catches. The story starts to move under its own power, just a little bit. And this gives you hope. And you keep writing and the story develops its own momentum and one day you’re writing but it doesn’t feel like you’re writing anymore, you’re just seeing the story unfold and transcribing as it does, like some lunatic translator scribing a lost manuscript into English for the first time. The dragons you’ve yet to slay don’t seem so large, the sharks don’t seem to have quite so many teeth, and you feel you may actually finish this thing, and that momentum lights in your fledgling little wings and spirits you off the ground. And you finish the thing, in a heady swirl of accomplishment and drunken confidence and sheer self-amazement that from nothingness you have created SOMEthing, in an act that flies in the face of everything you thought you knew before.
You still have doubts, but you know you’ve accomplished a capital “T” Thing, and then you go back and read it and you realize that for all its problems it’s not that bad. And that realization buoys you even further up, into the rarefied air that only the astronauts and the gods get to breathe (okay, astronauts don’t breathe the outside air, I get that, I’m on a roll here). And you begin to refine your creation, to shape and polish and sharpen it into the thing you never knew it could be, and then, finally, giddy with achievement and drunk with confidence, you send it out, and Icarus himself could not fly closer to the sun.
Maybe Icarus is the wrong comparison, or maybe he’s the perfect one. Both of those lines are true, and both are false. Writing lifts you up on the crests of the highs and casts you down into the snakepits of the lows, in a wickedly exhausting roller-coaster ride that somehow lasts for months on end. The point is, it’s a hell of a ride, and you might barf at the end.
This post is part of SoCS. Somehow I wrote all this without an edit.
7 thoughts on “The Shape of a Story”
I like your style. I like those tiny quips here and there. Totally deadpan, specially the box of chocolates part.
You described the emotions really well. Initially it does look like poop… But then you grow to like the poop!
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As a parent, so much of my life is about poop. I guess it’s no surprise it oozes through in my writing. I apologize for my word choice.
Brilliant! In the last part you described the novel I’m almost finished, but for the first example (the downward sloping line) I’m now positive somehow you got hold of my 2013 NaNo project. 😉
Loved it, Pav. 😀
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Don’t know what you’re talking about. These experiences are mine and mine alone! Any relation to any other writer’s experience, real or imagined, is purely coincidental.
…just as it’s a coincidence that we’re both writers…
Wow! What a breathless ride – kinda like writing.
You created a powerful roller coaster of your own, and, as I move through NaNo, I’m eagerly awaiting the bit of momentum I’m building to grow and take over…
Until then, I forge ahead, little by little…
The good thing about NaNo (I’m assuming) is that it’s so short, that you don’t have to maintain that momentum for very long.
The bad thing about NaNo is that it’s so short, you don’t have time for your system to adjust to the wicked change in effort.
Maybe I’ll give it a spin in a year or two…
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