Salvador Dali kisses Rachel's hand after painting her portrait.
Writing is like painting is like life is like love: it takes time to get it right.
For more than two years now I have been contributing an essay every month to The Prague Revue, a lovely, new-born, online literary zine. I was asked to be a regular contributor based on my short stories which TPR had published over the years, first in their original paper journal format and then in the new, digital Internet format. But now they didn't want short fiction, they wanted essays.
I hadn't written an essay since college or at least since my broadcast journalist days in Key West (if banging out a ten minute news cast, including an occasional human interest story, in twenty minutes can be considered writing essays). But essay writing was writing, after all, and writing is my passion, so I agreed to do it. At least give it a try. You have to admire the courage of the editors at TPR.
I should probably report here that I struggled with this new genre which is usually referred to as creative non-fiction. Creative non-fiction, despite the creative part, has to be fact, not fiction. It has to be colorful//brisk/well researched/poignant/amusing and above all interesting and well written.
The first month's essay struggled to emerge after a full day of slogging away at this laptop, a day filled with an agony of increasing self-doubt. I thought I had a great idea but the essence of it refused to flood out of my fingers onto the blank screen. My writer's brain choked, my writer's self confidence was soon in full retreat.
What to do? I stopped my struggle, closed the computer, and went for a long walk. Walking, as many writers find, is a fine thing to do in moments of creative trial and tribulation. Sure enough, after a few miles of hoofing it around town, I had the longed-for epiphany. To wit: It was the first day of the month. The completed, finely burnished essay was not due until the last day of the month. What the hell was I sweating for?
So, I set up a method of approaching essay writing. I would always be casting about for ideas, 24/7, day in and day out, daytime/nightime. When I was struck by one that seemed to have promise, I would note it down in my iphone. This way I built up a backlog of ideas for future essays.
Next, I would not spend time sitting at the computer just staring at the screen. I would write say, three sentences if that's all that seemed to be forthcoming, and move on to another writing project (this blog, my next novel). The only rule was that I would spend at least an hour a day on that month's essay. Just an hour, minimum. Of course, if it was going well, if the ideas were battering at the door of my imagination eager to get out, I would keep going and sometimes I would finish the first draft of a 2,000-word piece in a couple of hours.
Here's what I noticed happened: Every day when I sat down to write with the understanding that I only had to work at it for an hour, it took the panic and sweat out of essay writing. It allowed me plenty of time for my imagination to work and for me to do any research that was needed. It gave me time to re-write and fine tune and find any of those pesky typos and grammatical gremlins that lurk, smirking, within the syntax. For example, if I finished an essay by the middle of the month, I would still spend an hour every day re-writing it. It is wonderful, frightening, and enlightening when you realize how you can improve an essay you thought was finished if you re-write it every day for a couple of weeks.
And now I'm applying this idea to my fiction writing. As I re-write the draft of my just-finished novel, I treat each chapter as I would an essay. I spend at least an hour a day on each one, but if frustration and anguish creep in, I move on to something else. I'm adding a chapter to the middle of the book and having a great time writing it because I'm taking my time and allowing my character to take her time to develop fully.
In short, I'm no longer rushing the creative process. Our creative juices need time to gather, drip by drip, into a puddle of imagination. If I rush things, I'm missing all the possibilities for epiphanies--those lightning strikes of "ah ha!" moments that come if we give them enough time.