A Metaphor for Writing
As someone who creates and researches about the process of creating, I have come across many metaphors and descriptions by writers and creators trying to explain what is going on when they express themselves. As I believe everyone is fundamentally creative and capable of expressing themselves for their own benefit and the benefit of others, I will offer my thoughts so far in the hope it will inspire you to think about your own self expression and opinions on the subject.
I’ve often turned to Stephen King’s description of the novel writing process from On Writing, where he describes the act of writing as being like uncovering a dinosaur as opposed to building a house. I like the metaphor immensely, but on the long and frustrating journey to here I realised I liked the metaphor because to me it said that as long as I kept digging, as long as I just found the right place to dig, then gold, dinosaurs, adoring fans, perhaps even a novel would leap out of the hole. And while this has truth, it is not true.
King was lucky enough to dig in the right place, and more importantly, find publishers who decided that what he found thereafter, no matter what it was, was valuable. This is a sad truth to learn about art and creativity. But there is an older, deeper truth about what makes good writing, powerful art and successful business. The thing that faceless banks and cloned coffee houses are trying to pin down with their marketing – that intangible quality of something that stirs something in a stranger’s heart, that allows for deep connection across thousands of miles through marks on a page. It’s the very reason we can communicate, be moved by beautiful films, feel angry at injustice caused to strangers – there’s a deep and primal empathy with other beings that we can experience despite never meeting them. Through good storytelling, we are transported into their lives, their experiences their shoes.
Now I offer my own metaphor. It is only a metaphor, and like all metaphors, please use it and discard it as you will. It helps to emphasise an important – maybe the most important – part of writing anything; the part that is often forgotten and under-emphasised because it’s a painful and lonely step, because it’s hard to teach, because it doesn’t fit into our modern idea of ‘creativity’. It may also feel like it undermines the final jewel of a novel, or paragraph or whatever. The step missed out is that writing the first draft of anything means being messy, unedited and purely emotional. You must write it, plant the seeds, lay the foundations, before a good sentence can be dug up or uncovered. Before we have communication, we must have expression.
We live in a world where things should appear effortless and magical, where creativity comes with expectations of fun, freedom, success and lack of discipline. I’m sorry to say that creativity is the result of discipline. By discipline, I don’t mean writing a perfect sentence. I don’t mean perfunctly spleeld, advancised grammarly writings. I mean the opposite. To write anything ‘good’ – which I define as anything that fulfils its purpose to its audience, which in fiction means a strong, engaging world to escape into – you need the discipline to write the feelings, the raw emotion, the rough and unfinished feeling inside of you until there is enough there to build from. Sometimes that’s a scary and painful exercise. It takes courage, energy, sacrifice – notice we’re now using words related to masterpieces and successes in the world, from art to business – that is what gives them that underlying quality that makes part of you seem to leap out and meet it, connect with it, a sense of quality and attraction that we can spot a mile away.
With practice, you will get better at expressing yourself through writing (or any discipline). Just like speaking aloud, writing is not something that always puts itself over to communicating all that goes on inside you. My favourite image of this is Susan Sontag’s observation:
“Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.”
Which is why my working metaphor is not about a dinosaur. It’s not all there ready to be pulled out. Rather, we take an everyday material used for thousands of dull and menial purposes, and we form something beautiful, exciting and precious out of it. We use words all the time, and most of the time we say nothing with them. We communicate very little compared to how much we say. We use the same few words over and over and they have less effect each time. Like words, we use clay for boring and practical purposes, it’s everywhere and it’s all the same boring stuff. We can turn an object that has been used a thousand times before for the same purpose and we can make something so powerful, so well-formed that people no longer see clay when they look at it, they see beautiful or amazing events and ideas.
And this is what we will be using to build our treasure with. If you were to try to sculpt treasure from it before pulling it out of the flowing waters of the river in all its wet and disgusting glory, we will be standing in that river playing with clay for a long time before anything that could be described as ’not clay’ is formed. We need to pull up the clay first, pile it on the side and examine it for the promising strata and colours that we will be able to form into valuable, moving or inspiring forms.
To take the metaphor a step further: we can choose any of the rivers we have access to, rivers that are in us, that flow from the things we’ve experienced and towards the things we dream of, the things we daren’t think about, the things we secretly wish, the things we are terrified of. Different people have different landscapes inside them. Some people have a few, deep rivers that hold all of their experiences, hurts and joys that seem not to move at all, even if deep below the surface the current is strong. Some people have many, shallower rivers, all carrying different things, events, ideas and emotions. Some people are good at letting their rivers join and cross each other, the water’s mixing and flowing to create constantly changing mixtures of clay. Some people do not. It doesn’t matter, if it works well for you.
So I urge you, choose your deepest, oldest river to pick clay from, not the one that looks prettiest on the surface today. Find the old abandoned creek that leads to places you aren’t comfortable with, or comes from something you aren’t happy to think about. Some rivers come from such bad places they are clogged with silage and silt from the events. It is painful and hard work but one day they can become clean, and beautiful as they flow again. The clay from these rivers is hard won and precious – it cannot be counterfeited. Your pain, your joy, your most hidden desires and fears are the best clay to build powerful and awesome creations with. It is this that people will connect with, empathise with and be able to use to find their own lost rivers.
That is not to say that the clay must be shaped like the river. The work of structuring and editing is still to come, but it cannot come too soon into your clay gathering. The clay will hold the essence of its river in whatever form you use it, people will never know which river it is from, but they will know a river runs deep and powerful in you, one of hard learning and soul-bearing truth. And that is what people want to read. That is what is valuable in writing, art and business. They want to read the truth of people, of the human condition of life in all its spectrum of experience, and they want it to be truth barely concealed in clay.