From the time I discovered that letters of the alphabet are there to make words, I’ve loved the words they make. As my reading matured I grew to love how those simple words could be molded into marvelous sentences. Sentences made stories and it was stories I lusted after.
Good stories. Stories that made my eyes grow wide, that made me shudder with excitement, that made me laugh. Stories that gave me peace and filled my heart with happiness.
It didn’t occur to me until I was much older that stories didn’t magically appear just at that moment when I needed to read them. They appeared because a mortal writer took the time to select just the right words and put them together in such a way they caused a decided reaction from an unknown reader in a far-off place
I read everything when I was young, everything I could get my hands on. I checked out library books that were far beyond my comprehension, but held something that drew me to them. The cover, the feel, the smell? More likely it was that first sentence. Or the second. Or the third. I didn’t need to understand the whole of the book. What I was after were those words put together in such a way they read like songs, and I would read them as if I were singing. I didn’t need to understand the premise or the idea, I only needed to feel something.
It wasn’t until I began writing myself that I realized how much work it took to produce a sentence that might even come close to doing that thing. There are mechanics involved. Those words don’t just fly off my fingertips, wrought whole and in just the right order. No matter how much I wish it, that’s not how it works. I learned I had much to learn.
Because I was a voracious reader I thought writing would be easy. I thought it was osmosis when, in fact, it was closer to manual labor.
When I realized how hard it was going to be, I almost gave up. I could think those perfect words but writing them down was an effort so clumsy it was embarrassing. Even when no one was around to read them, it was embarrassing. How could I not know how to write?
I’m learning, even now, after all these years, that in order for writing to become art it first has to become a skill. There is a learning process, the same as there is for artists and musicians and dancers and actors — for anyone involved in creative work.
Nobody writes or paints or performs straight out of the box without lessons of some kind. If those things were easy we wouldn’t venerate the people who do it well. We appreciate and honor them because we know how hard it is. But because, from an early age, we’ve all learned the mechanics of writing, and because writing requires so few tools, it’s easy to believe writing is as natural as breathing.
It is, in some sense. Anyone can write. Some will become writers. But not all will rise to a level where their writing is treasured and shared and read to the point of dog-earing. They’re the gifted ones — the rewriters.
They’re the writers who have such respect for the written word they wouldn’t dream of sending their efforts out into the world without strengthening and polishing and checking again and again for flaws. Every successful writer we look to for advice talks about rewriting. Almost none of them see it as a chore. It’s an important part of the process.
Knowing we’ll be rewriting gives us permission to just get it down. We’re free to experiment, to play with words, to juggle and move and rip out and put back in. It’s the part that becomes art.
Perfection is an illusion, but striving for it isn’t. Rewriting is striving to be best, but if it does no more than make us better, it’s worth the effort.
Sometimes it’s the journey, the unexpected side-trips, that gets us to those places we’ve been wanting to go.