Gardening with Words

Gardening with Words

6/22/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

 

    In short: although the ambiguous and choice-filled nature of composition may incline one to outline and resolve all details of a story beforehand, they would do better to use the writing process as a means for “growing” their idea to the fullest.

 

    Perhaps the most daunting thing about the writing process is the sheer amount of choice inherent within every story. With about 250,000 words in the English language and some 1,000 words in a typical short story, it’s not hard to see why even the shortest piece can take a while to complete.

    Of course, when people talk about the decisions involved in writing, they are not just referring to word-by-word dilemmas. The biggest choices any writer makes are over issues such as plot, setting and character-elements for which there are no guides, no preprogrammed templates.

    The ambiguous and indefinite nature of writing makes it something of an anachronism in modern society, where every detail of a time-consuming project is expected to be definite and clear. To compensate, English teachers and bosses instruct their students and workers to outline pieces, plan out sections and use as many resources as necessary.

    The problem with the push to outline and plan out a piece, unfortunately, is tat it treats the development of an idea as, say, the development of a concrete slab or a cardboard box. When writing is marginalized as a means for putting ideas down on paper, outlining seems to be a natural and reasonable strategy. My argument, however loopy it may sound, is that the “plan it out before” group has made a gross misinterpretation.

 

    How do writers get their ideas? Does a deliveryman come and ring their doorbells with a package of concepts? If only this were the case. No, ideas arrive as seeds, mere glimpses of a thought’s full potential. Writing is not a game of cutting open a hypothetical box of ideas and typing down the contents, but a long, time-consuming process of gardening those seeds until they reach maturity. And in the writer’s case, the watering can that allows such growth is not the outlining chart nor any pre-writing brainstorm, but the keyboard itself.

    Should this sound like some cryptic message, I’ll try to put it more bluntly. I do not view writing as the end process of an idea’s development, but as the tool I use to develop an idea. I approach the keyboard with that hypothetical shell of a story idea; only by writing out the actual story can I get the characters, the plot fully developed.

    That’s the difficult thing about composition. When I sit down at the desk to face a blank page and a blinking cursor, all I have is that little seed. I can paint it, surround it with other ideas, but it’s still only a hint of the story to come.

    Perhaps this is what turns people away from writing. There are no axioms ore tested-and-true theories that an author can take with them to the table; everything—from the characters to the setting—is more or less indefinite.

    The sheer amount of choice in writing doesn’t make composition any easier, nor does the inability to effectively plan beforehand. Oddly enough, these seeming hindrances are what attract me to the craft. If I followed a strict writers’ guide that only gave me a few choices per page; if I knew exactly what I was going to write and how a story would end, I wonder if I would even bother to compose at all. One of the great joys of typing out a story is the process of discovery that takes place. Before my very eyes bloom characters, setting and plot, all of which have never been seen before. The ambiguity of composition turns writing into an exploration of unmapped territory, with the final destination a surprise in the making.

    Do I wish that my hobby were more like brick laying? There are times when I do envy those who know just what they’re making and how to produce it. Those moments come and go, but what stays constant is the thrill of discovery that an untouched page, a story in the making can bring. The best ideas may take a while to grow, but that’s what writing is for.

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