A piece of writing does not appear fully formed on the page with just a wiggle of the pencil. We all know that. But do writers really believe that writing is work?
Measuring, prodding, covering, uncovering, failing, creating, cutting off, throwing away, paring down, then layering on again…. If we really think out our concept and have some talent and skill, we secretly believe, our little guy will show up all ready to go without all that bother. And how should I think about writing, anyway? Is it a sea that one can navigate smoothly as long as a good compass and some sea smarts are on hand? Is my next piece a golem that, if molded with just the right tools and spirit, will spring to life?
With or without a good working metaphor, I began assuming that I could “master” writing and be able to churn out lovely, neat prose in no time with just a little forethought. As you may have guessed, food came to the rescue, saving me from this sad misconception.
I happened to be making three-bean soup and slicing up the requisite onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and potatoes the other day. By the end of my prep, I was left with a pile of onion skins, carrot tops, celery leaves, and so on. This reminded me of the parings from an assignment I had just written, a short memoir about the first time I (Mom, cover your eyes) smoked pot. In my preparation for writing, I came up with some memories and then some nicely-written paragraphs about the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program that we loved to hate as middle schoolers. I even found a few drug quizzes online and came up with a structure that would play on questions in a hypothetical DARE test. I also wrote an amusing description of the uniformed and mustachioed Officer Gary who taught the class.
In the end, I used none of it. The memoir still worked and still had a theme running through it. It just took a few more hours and a lot of slicing to let me know it was not to be about misguided substance abuse education.
Peering into that pile of discarded bits and thinking of my last piece, I suddenly had my metaphor and a beautiful lesson to boot. When I’m writing–really writing, not just a quick and dirty email or blog post–I’m always throwing things away. And it’s NECESSARY. You can’t throw a whole, dirty head of celery in the pot, people!
Even with a perfectly planned argument structure or story plot or poemscape, I couldn’t poke a mass of schmutz a couple of times and have it start to breathe. I needed those whole sentences and paragraphs that I cut away. I’d heard “kill your darlings,” that wonderful advice usually attributed to Faulkner, and I knew that Hemingway thought of writing as an iceberg. Audre Lorde posited that women gravitate toward poetry because they often have so little time to write–in other words, they don’t have luxurious hours to massage darlings into being just to throw them away. I’ve even seen throw-away parts of writing talked about as “compost.” However, it took that moment to make me see. Finally I was comfortable with the idea, because I could put it in my terms–a pile of discarded skins and carrot tops and even flesh is needed, and a piece that comes together without shedding would be the verbal equivalent of canned peas.
This helps me relax about writing hundreds of words I’ll never use. Another great part of this metaphor is that it gives me hope for the prose about the DARE drug quiz. Like the onion skins and carrot tops, it could very well turn up in a tasty stock.