When I write, I usually begin with a vague idea, put down the first words that come into my head, then simply follow them wherever they lead me, or choose to go. I think I first came across that concept in a book by Natalie Goldberg, or maybe Julia Cameron.
Like everyone else, I had been taught differently. One might begin with an idea, but then comes an outline of points to be followed to that flashing light at the back of ones mind. Next comes the hard work of fleshing out each of the points in that outline, remembering to include at least one argument against whatever the main thesis that develops around that original thought might be. And if I’m really going to be honest, that’s about when the whole thing became really hard work and I would start pushing against it.
Mainly because I already knew that whenever I finally got to the writing, no matter what I wrote, it must be carefully, and several times, rewritten and revised to ensure clarity and coherence. And, again, to be perfectly honest, if I had continued in that programmed vein of how to do this thing, I would never have allowed myself to become a writer.
Both of the authors I mentioned above are far more concerned with simply getting on the page and staying there. No thoughts about eventual outcomes, doubts about ability, or fear of success/failure. Just do it and be done with it. So much easier than all that wasted paper, energy, and time, far more satisfying to ones sense of accomplishment ( a page filled, even with nonsense, is still a filled page), and the very real possibility that one can cut out all the crap and maybe even find something valuable in the process.
Amazingly enough, after trying and liking this new process far better than the headaches created by that old one, I discovered something really valuable. I’d already been engaged in doing the same thing when I wrote poetry. And poetry was the very thing that had gotten me thinking about becoming a writer.
With poetry, I found that a ‘catch’ phrase would lodge itself in my head. I would jot it down and then simply follow wherever it wanted to go. There were no thoughts of outlines, arguments, explanations, etc. It just sort of fell into place. The rewriting and revising were automatic and came after the writing was finished as I worked to make my point as clear as possible, when word choice became especially important. The original idea was already there waiting to be fulfilled in whatever manner I chose.
Once I had gotten past all of my own doubts about this ‘easier’ (therefore less appropriate or adequate process), and realized that I could use it because I’d already been doing it for some time, I relaxed and just followed the flow.
What’s more, I also realized that I’d been practicing doing just that in my morning pages. My journal is nothing but off the cuff writing. Not always smooth and coherent, but it certainly was the process of following the words and feelings, the thoughts and ideas to whatever conclusion was available, or waiting to be found.
That is not to say that giving up all that early training about how to write was simple or easy. It wasn’t. There are still mornings when I simply sit and stare at a half blank page of white paper and wonder if I’ll ever move again. I do, but on occasion it is still a stop and start process and a lot of pushing to get there. But, I have also discovered a great deal more.
My journal is a sort of shorthand process of that old training. It could be seen as the flash of an idea, a less rigid type of outline, and a revising and rewriting process all in one page. It is also just plain good practice, warming up or stretching exercises, for whatever might follow.
Furthermore, those stretching exercises often clear the emotional baggage attached to further writing. Because we have already begun, the actual beginning is far easier and less apt to encounter resistance. A filled journal page puts us in the zone, far more ready to continue than we might otherwise have been. It warms up the muscles and prepares them for the real work of getting on with whatever we are getting into, be that more writing or punching a time clock fully aware and alert.
For me, personally, following the words is a way of life. It begins on that journal page, but often results in blogs of poetry and personal essays, email exchanges that enrich my life with further questions and ideas to be explored, images that need to be expressed in vivid color, authors waiting for discussion, and all types of people wanting to converse and communicate. It makes all of my experience richer and fuller.
We are told that we are born with a clean slate. We grow up putting together some vague outline of where we want to go and what we want to do. But then, there are all those changes and surprises and that only call for more revisions and rewrites. If we adhere to that original rigid outline, we may end up frustrating ourselves or just giving up in defeat. Daily, or regular practice, even if its only on paper, can open doors, suggest new ideas and avenues, allow a coherency that might otherwise be lost, as well as the opportunity to try it all ahead of time, in private.
I am thinking that I need to go back and thank that woman, the one who, over thirty years ago (maybe more), decided to get rid of the outline, the arguments and explanations, the rewriting and the revisions, and just get on the page and follow the words. For a youngster, she was pretty smart back then, and I can only say thank you to her for giving me that chance to become.