Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Path of Words

The other day a student of mine stopped by my office. She was disturbed. She had been trying to write, she said, and failing. “I just can’t seem to find the right words,” she said. This student, an undergraduate, can’t be more than nineteen or twenty years old. She said every morning she sits down with her coffee and notebook, only to end up gazing off into space for an hour, and maybe scribbling a few lines that she crosses out. It’s been going on that way now for at least three weeks, she confessed to me.

At some point in her or his career almost every writer goes through something like this. We call it “writers block” and there have been all kinds of articles and books written about it. But my student’s plight was more specific. She is, after all, just beginning her journey as a writer; she has no “career” yet, to speak of. She is still in her apprenticeship, and just beginning that.

So we talked for a bit, and this is what I had to say:

Think of your writing life as a journey, I said. You’re on a road or a path—a long and (we know) an often bumpy or otherwise difficult road toward the goal of becoming an accomplished and maybe even a wonderful writer. But that long path or road isn’t paved with asphalt or dirt. It’s made of words. The goal is there in the distance—none of us know how far, exactly. But to get to it you know this: that you must traverse so many words.

Let us say that to reach your goal you have to “walk” a million words. Does it matter, really, what words they are, or even what order they are arranged in—any more than it matters what any road we take to get anywhere is made of, knowing that’s the only road? When we have a journey to take, and when the path is known and clear, however rocky, do we stop and question the quality of the passageway? Do we let the fact that there are bumps or potholes or fallen trees blocking the way stop us, or throw us off the path?

No: we walk around or over the obstacle. If necessary we beat a detour through the woods. But we keep going. Because the point is not to repave the road, but to walk down it to get where we must go, to get over the first million words.

This is why, especially when starting out to write, it’s probably not such a good idea to think in terms of expectations or standards or results, or to even think about, for instance, the quality of the sentences that we write, of how “good we are” or how well we are writing. The thing to do is to write, to see ourselves as voyagers on a path made up of words, and to proceed—not without effort, shamelessly or thoughtlessly, but again without putting too much emphasis on the quality of the road. To proceed not beautifully, or swiftly: but sincerely, with determination, keeping in mind your goal. And the only way to that goal is by way of so many sincere but imperfect words.

After you’ve journeyed across a million words, what if you still haven’t arrived, what if your goal still hasn’t been met?

Then you keep walking. Across the next million words. And the next. All the while knowing that each word brings you closer to your goal, and that you are willing to walk forever, to cross as many words, good and bad, as necessary, as long as it gets you where you are going.

The path through life may be everything; the end nothing. But with writing the opposite may be true. The path is nothing—nothing but a bunch of words to be gotten over. And no, the end isn't all.

But at least it's a start.

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