I remember, when I was in school, learning about how during the gold rush — you know, old west, Manifest Destiny times — people would pan for gold. Scoop some water out of the river, sift through it, see if any nuggets were floating in the runoff. Or they’d just take big handfuls of dirt, toss them on these screens, and slowly sift away the big rocks, then the little ones, and so on, in hopes of separating out something priceless from the junk.
And I always thought that was kind of BS. You dunk your little pan into the river, hoping to get rich off some crumbs floating downstream? You dig up your backyard, hoping that in there among the rocks and the sand, there’s a gold nugget, just waiting to be discovered?
It’s the sort of ridiculous hope that keeps people buying lottery tickets. The overwhelming odds are that not only will you not find gold, but you will have wasted hours — if not days or weeks or worse — of time which you could have used for, you know, useful things otherwise.
Not incidentally, one of my favorite snippets from Sam Harris (a prominent atheist/philosopher/neurologist and pretty smart guy) has to do with a guy who spends his weekends digging in his backyard for an enormous diamond. “It gives me great pleasure, seeking this diamond,” the guy claims, though there’s no evidence that the diamond exists, nor is there any good reason to believe that it might. And regardless of whether this diamond does exist, the believer “wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t an enormous diamond buried in my backyard.”
Panning for gold in that way takes something maybe even stronger than an act of faith.
But lately, that metaphor strikes me in another way.
If the first draft is the rushing mountain stream, then there are definitely some gold flakes floating in it, lost amid the smashing rapids and festering cesspools of word vomit. (This is, incidentally, why I’m not totally soul-crushed after losing about twenty thousand words of my latest project; because I know that most of it is crap.) Problem is, there’s no knowing where they are ahead of time. And there’s no guarantee that, if I dive into that stream of bland, meandering word salad, I’ll come away with anything approaching usefulness.
But I keep doing it. Every day I wade into the waters and pan for gold, screening the water and the dust and the lumps of calcified cow crap in hopes that somewhere among the detritus is a nugget that I might one day parlay into a car payment.
You know. The sort of blind, hopeless faith that I usually rail against.
But with one key difference.
The poor saps panning and sifting for gold or digging for diamonds in their backyards are putting their faith in things they can’t see or touch or know in any way. The gold is either flowing in the river, or it’s not. It’s either mixed in the dirt, or it isn’t. The diamond is either buried in the earth to be found, or there is no such diamond. But the words I churn out every day? It may not be much, but at least I’m in control of those words. And I know that, even though most of them may be crap, the potential is there, hiding behind fossilized feces or drifting downstream.
The faith a writer has to have is a faith in himself (or herself!). Some would argue that it takes a hell of a lot of faith to return to the blank page, day after day, to deface it with your imperfection. There’s certainly something of the devotional in it.
But I don’t think it actually takes much faith at all. The stories we’re sifting for are there, hiding just below the surface, winking at us from behind the river of crap.
We just have to have the patience to screen out the garbage.
This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.