If I'm not in the obsessive, can't-stay-away-from-it phase of composing a story, I sometimes sit down for a writing session, and forget how to
write. I stupidly think that in order to begin, I have to know what I'm going to say. Then I'm immediately struck by the horrifying (though by now almost tedious—yeah, yeah, I've heard this before) realization that
I have nothing to say. This has happened over and over. Want to write, think about writing, sit down to write, become paralyzed.
Each time, I have to remember: Start small. Why doesn't "starting small" feel like real writing? Really, there isn't any other way to start. One small word and then another and then a whole sentence, and then another. Take notes. A fragment, a sketch, the beginnings of an idea.
But I have boxes and boxes of notebooks, full of these fragments. Moleskines, spirals, leather-bound journals, composition books. Sticky notes, index cards, hotel notepads. My problem isn't so much with writing. My problem is with taking the writing to the next step.
Even the notes I take on a specific project often lie dormant. These range from tiny suggestions, like "change Eli's name to Ian" (or, "watch out for too many names that start with vowels"), to sweeping generalizations about structure, like "it's not a novel! It's linked stories!" (or "it's not linked stories! It's one tiny story!"). Sometimes the notes are directive: "do a scene where Dan watches his wife and daughter from another room, and reflects on how isolated he feels from them; this is how he rationalizes his infidelity."
And all too often, that's as far as it goes. Just notes.
It's embarrassing to admit how long it's taken me to realize that the whole trick is this: close the gap between notes and draft.
At the beginning of a writing session, if I don't know where to start, I go to the notes, and transfer the useful ones to the proper place in the draft I'm working on. If it's an added scene, like the Dan idea above, I make a note in the draft where I think that scene should go. If the note suggests a specific and concrete change, and it happens to spark my imagination, I go into the draft and
actually make that change. Before I know it, I'm writing a paragraph. Or scene.
I used to think, "but this isn't real writing" (by which I meant that euphoric seven-longhand-pages-in-one-sitting kind of writing). Now I wonder what that could possibly mean. I am writing. That's as real as writing gets.
And then I go back and forth in that story or chapter, up and down, start to finish, looking for the adjustments I need to make because that new sentence or scene is in there, and I revise and add notes and go back over it again and maybe move some stuff around. I write past the spot where I last left off, getting closer to the "ending" of the chapter or story.
Here's the best part, though. Sometimes a note that was unrelated to the project at hand (all those old notebooks!) provides the kind of associative leap that helps a sentence or scene or story break open in a new direction—the kind of vertical drop that deepens and, as one of my students once said, "complexifies" the work. By moving back and forth between notebooks and draft, I become attuned to the detail or image or quirk or secondary character that's just the little electric zap the story needs.
An hour might go by like this. Two.
When I'm done with the computer draft for the day, I make sure I throw away the sticky note, or cross off, in the notebook, the thing I've already moved into the typed draft. I don't need to worry about it anymore. When I go back to that notebook, I don't waste time going through notes I've already acted upon. Crossing out a page gives me a rare sense of accomplishment.
Of course, it's a loop: if I sit down with my draft in the morning, then later in the day I am more apt to "call up" the draft in my head. I am more likely to take more notes. At a stoplight, I scratch down a detail on the note pad I keep in the car; at the grocery store I use the back of my list. Here are tomorrow's notes. Here are the breadcrumbs on the forest path. I can follow them back to where I left off. I don't have to start over every day.
If I can just remember this tomorrow.