Friday, November 7, 2008

Keep the Pencil Moving

In Elements of Writing Fiction: Characters & Voice, SF veteran Orson Scott Card wisely differentiates between the skill of storytelling and that of writing. Many would-be authors excel at the former. Their heads are veritably sloshing with ideas, which spill out at casual conversation over the breakfast table, in chats in the hallways at work and while watching the game with friends. But when time comes for dreaming to end and writing to begin, their ideas dry up. The act of putting together noun and verb, adjective and adverb, preposition and conjunction into a coherent whole is an entirely different discipline. It stalls them and stops them and too often leaves them broken down on the side of the road.

What’s the solution? Keep the pencil moving.

I mean that quite literally. A professor once told me that when I didn’t know what to write, I should write exactly that: I don’t know what to write. “Scrawl it across the page,” he said. “Do it five, ten, twenty times. Acquaint yourself with the mechanics of it.” Strangely enough, it works. After you’ve kept the pencil moving for a bit, the physical act of writing ceases to feel like an obstacle, and the ideas start to trickle back. They may not be a flood any longer. No matter. Put down what you have, and do the same tomorrow and the day after that.

While such discipline improves us over time, I suspect that only a precious few will become effortlessly prolific. In Bird By Bird
, Anne Lamott quotes an anonymous friend as saying tongue-in-cheek to himself when he sits down to write, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do -- you can either type or kill yourself.” Keeping the pencil moving may not be magical, but it will likely build your competence. Competence, in turn, can create confidence. And when all three come together, sometimes you end up with excellence.

(Picture: CC 2006 by

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