How familiar is this? You attend yet another writer's conference, and the keynote speaker has just regaled the audience on how she wrote her breakout first novel, which of course not only became a bestseller, but also launched a movie franchise. She tells us that she'd never written before, except maybe a sweet little article for a parenting magazine. But one morning, after a pitiful night's sleep due to 3 sick children and a dog that ate her husband's socks, she awakened with the entire plot for the book. Complete with sparkly skin. And she's never read books about leprechauns, either.
It had just come to her.
Maybe she was also down on her luck, living on food stamps, and one dream later, she's wearing Prada to walk the dog. She demurs, she giggles, she tells us we just have to pay attention to our dreams because an absolute fabbie story is just waiting to pop out with the morning bowl of cornflakes.
I don't know about you, but I find these inspirational stories kinda depressing, and more likely to send me to the gentle comfort of cheesecake and vodka than to my notebook. Because Ima Bess Eller didn't mention the seven drafts that she went through or the edits her editor demanded just to make the book saleable. No, as far as I know, that best seller was birthed from her forehead like Athena springing from Zeus. And perfectionist that I can be, I don't want to start something that doesn't arrive fully written.
This week, I signed up for a design class taught by WeeksRingle. In the intro, she mentioned Twyla Tharpe's book, The Creative Habit, and shared Ms Tharpe's idea of "scratching". Chickens walk through the yard - at least the free range ones do - scratching for corn. They don't know for sure if there is grain. Sometimes they pluck up a pebble or stone. But they still continue to scratch and sample, seeking all day long for something tasty.
Like chickens, artists, choreographers and yes, even writers, must learn to be continuous scratchers, living in the expectation of the spark of an idea. And then not to be bound to that idea, either, because sometimes an idea is simply the doorway to the next one.
Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in high school, my creative writing teacher had us read. All the time. To see how other writers handled words, conveyed ideas. We looked at theme and cadence, at conflict and arc. Then we would do writing exercises. My writing teacher had no expectation of any story or poem arriving fully formed. Nor was every idea that we scratched about with meant to become a completed story. I can't tell you where the transition was made in my mind. Perhaps my procrastination forced my perfectionism's hand, or vice versa. But I love the freedom in trial and error, even if I haven't the patience always for gathering and trying and drafting and thinking. But I think my writing will only get better if I allow myself to just scratch about and see where an idea might carry me.