Writing from scratch means you start with something totally blank and white, like a snowy expanse of tundra stretching out empty in front of you—white, cold, and featureless. When you get done, it’s like a tropical jungle, multihued with greens and browns and blacks, where exotic flowers are blooming, with monkeys and leopards in the foreground, and a hidden life writhing underneath.
That sounds simple to you, maybe.
As a jungle cultivator myself, I always face the blank page and think “Goddamnit, why is this so hard?” I’ve been a writer a long time, since me and God used to steal cars and go for rides (I never got to drive), so I’ve got some experience as a writer. There are days when I have the feeling that writing ought to be getting easier, what with my finely honed ability to find just the right word. Or locate the right word. Or ascertain. One of those. Oh, and my acute sense of taste.
Is it possible that writing has grown easier than it used to be, and I’ve just forgotten? It’s certainly possible that I’ve forgotten. I do a lot of that now. But as far as I can tell, just like I always did, I still sit down in front of a screen filled with engulfing vacuous nothingness, and I look at it, scratch my head, think of something stupid, realize I need to go pee, come back and look at the blank screen again, type a sentence, erase it, glad nobody saw it, go check to see if I turned off the water, come back, write a sentence that isn’t very good but leave it, and go get a glass of wine to celebrate.
That’s my process. No doubt you have your own.
I’m back to writing new material on the current novel, which still has no name, though I’ve attempted a few times to think of something. I do have some ideas for what to do with the next two or three chapters, so I’m slowly pecking it out. Here’s a strange fact—is it strange? do you think?—about my writing process. I feel compelled to write, I yearn for more time to write, I will skip other things in order to write, but it is very rare when I sit here writing that I would not prefer to be doing something more fun instead.
Since I’ve just spent several weeks revising the first 110 pages (ending up with 130), I’m particularly aware at the moment of how many differences there are between revising and creating from the start. In revising, I’m trying to improve what already exists, instead of wondering what should exist. Over and over as I revised I would find myself reading a page, maybe feeling a little lazy, maybe wanting it to be done, and I’d think “That sounds OK, I guess”. Then I would metaphorically grit my teeth and say to myself that OK is not good enough, and wondering how I could make it better.
Oy, God, it was already OK, why did it have to be better? Maybe there was no such thing as better. Maybe it was plenty damn good already. And finally the real thinking would start, for example admitting that having Benedict glance around and see “a busy street” was nothing but a skeleton, with neither flesh nor life. So alright, what can be on a street? Buildings (how tall? made of what? with what kind of businesses?), people (how old? dressed how? doing what?), street features (light poles? signs?), and so on. And maybe Benedict should say something, but say what? What could he be thinking about at that moment?
As I return now to creating new material instead of revising, I can feel the difference, like having someone smack you on the right side of your head, instead of the left side. What was sometimes tedious to do when revising, coming up with the subtleties and nuances—trying to make it clearer and more interesting—all seems missing now as I’m writing. Now I’m working hard just to get a plot out, thinking about where my protagonists are going, when they change from one scene to another, how they move through the scene.
Inevitably what I produce feels a little bare, and when I get a reader to look at it in that state, I get comments about how it could use filling in, could use more detail about what they do in the park and what it looks like. Uh huh, well, some day. Cause I ain’t doing that now. I’m writing.