Once in a gift shop, I saw a cheesy little poster that depicted a goofy-looking puppy seated with its legs awkwardly splayed. Its caption read, “Sometimes I sits and I thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”
Grammar aside, that pretty much sums up my life. Although I hope I spend more time on the “thinks” side, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have those other days as well. And there’s an equivalent in writing. Some days I reach my requisite number of words, though rarely more; I’m talking about those excruciating writing sessions in which I check the word count every line or two, as if the number of words could miraculously swell to something many times what I just wrote, and then it would be okay for me to quit.
Because I’m not a quitter, darn it, I plug along, and eventually I reach a number that’s acceptable to me. I get a section of the book down, and it works well enough. The action moves at a reasonable pace, the description is adequate, and maybe the dialogue is even close to okay. There’s nothing exactly wrong with it, it’s just not good. It lacks oomph somehow. It lacks energy because my own energy is invariably flat that day.
Lots of what’s missing could be improved with sharper technique. Verbs need to be stronger, description needs to be more exact, characters need to speak more strongly in their own distinctive voices. But there’s also something more illusive involved. For writing to live off the page, we need to transfer over some of our own power. To electrify those lines so that someday, when the book is in print, the reader will feel the intensity we brought to that passage. It’s hard to say how it happens. That’s why writing is such a magical process. Some days, though, I can’t do it. Some days, I really do just sits.
But the great thing about writing is, once those lifeless words are down on the page, it doesn’t mean they have to stay lifeless. Oomph isn’t dependent on the outcome of any one writing session. The energy I didn’t inject into them on the day that I wrote them can come at another time, and the end result will be so seamless the reader will never guess. It’s not necessary that you bring that intensity every day, although I would love it if I could. It’s just essential that you bring it at some time.
I think of books as lumps of clay waiting to be sculpted. Some days we’re spot-on, and we get really close to the outcome we want. The figure hiding in that clay begins to emerge, and its unique beauty becomes evident. Other days, I just scrape away extra clay and leave the magic for another time.
But those “sits” days have their benefits, too. Just because I can’t create magic at those times, doesn’t mean I’m totally hopeless. On those days, I find myself taking a longer, more detached look at the whole project. I look at where I’ve been and where I’m going. I see connections I sometimes miss in the heat of in-the-zone writing. Some of those observations are as critical to the success of the work-in-progress as the more electrified sessions.
So, while nothing feels as good as those dynamite days when I have power to spare, when I write as if a current flows through me and onto the page, I’ve also come to value those times when I’m tempted to borrow back a bit of the energy I’ve already infused into the book. Because I know they both contribute to the final product.
But maybe I’m rationalizing. Today, I just sits.