On July 18, 1877, Thomas Hardy entered the stadium in Dorchester, Dorset, England, to begin work on his sixth novel, The Return of the Native. The crowd applauded as the confident young novelist marched onto the pitch and settled himself at his desk, then went quiet as he dipped his pen in his inkwell.
But Hardy began by drawing a doodle, which, after some consideration, he signed. After he finally wrote a word (“The”), he crossed it out, gazed into space, then signed his name again. “It’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles all over again,” the play-by-play man lamented, until Hardy, seized by inspiration, rewrote “The,” changed it to “A,” and then galloped off toward his first verb. The crowd was on its feet as he finished the sentence, and after only three hours of writing.
This may be meaningless scribbles from Monty Python, but in some ways it describes my writing process. “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” noted Thomas Mann, a man who had no trouble writing. Most of his books are thick enough to brain a horse. But I take his point.
When I sit down to write, I am dazzled, sometimes blinded, by all the possibilities. A story can go anywhere. I want to get the words down, write a draft that leaks and patch it later when the adrenaline has subsided, but I also want to write well. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Hemingway used to say to himself early on, in Paris. “Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Thomas Hardy and Ernest Hemingway might have been less distractible than me. I’m very distractible – not by television or the internet, not by dinosaurs or cheerleaders, but by my own thoughts. In yesterday’s session, as I was warming up, a sentence came to me for a new story. A week before, while carpooling to work, I had told my co-worker about an incident in an office from long before computers made it impossible for anyone to hide anything. I guess that that memory, which had been dozing for years, woke up and began to sprout, because suddenly I was off and writing fluently, easily, and 90 minutes later I had a 2,000-word story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Another 1,500 words and one more character and it’s done.
This story has no relationship with my novel.
Is this procrastination? If it were, I’d still be doodling – spaceships, probably – and signing my name. One of my teachers once told our class her “red dress theory” of writing: She didn’t write her ideas down. Whatever idea was still in her head, still shining, when she started writing was the one she went with. When the red dress appears, wear it. I’m not sure what my red-dress equivalent would be. An Alpha Romeo? More like an album by King Crimson.
Writing is fun, and though my novel is starting to move I loved this sprint into the unexpected.
Clarion West box score
While the Clarion West class of 2019 slaves away in Week 4 in Seattle, 166 people (from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, France, India, Malaysia, Spain, Taiwan, the U.K, and the U.S.) are scribbling away in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon). Two of those people are Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Jules Verne.
Dead or alive, Verne is never going to improve.
The Write-a-thon has brought in $10,727 to help keep Clarion West going. My sponsors (all three of ’em) are doing their part: Karen G. Anderson, Kate Schaefer, and Jerry Kaufman. Bless you!