Most writing isn’t writing.

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

― Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wasn’t the only one to say this. There is evidence that Paul Gallico, another sportswriter, used much the same language in 1946.

That’s not all there is to create a story, however. A story doesn’t always pop up with all its details and twists and turns. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) a story has a long period of being hidden beneath the soil that’s the author’s mind, like a seed that is getting ready to appear. And even after that, it’s not a complete story. A story has a lot of growing to do, like a flower or a plant. Gaining size, strength, petals and leaves, branches when it’s a tree, all these things are part of making it a story.

When I contemplate a story, there can be long periods where nothing seems to happen. Often I know where I am in the story and where I want it to go, but then I am looking for the ‘bridge’ in the text to get there. Jumping from A to G without touching the letters in between can make for a fast story but it will also make things hard to follow, jumpy, erratic.

During those periods, a lot of staring goes on. Staring into the void, or an abyss, as it might seem to people who aren’t inside my head.

Nothing of the kind happens though. In that stage I’m walking down each road that can lead from A to G, touching on B, C, D, E and F as possible without making the story dull or slow.

It can happen that each road I travel ends up nowhere, or I get stuck at D.

That is when time really takes a leap because at the end of the available roads I need to step back and let my inner ‘map’ figure out how to travel further. Usually, that works pretty well. Sometimes the solution is to kill a chapter and do that again, but better.

When I consider how much time goes into that thinking part of creating a story, the actual writing isn’t much. Still Hemingway was right with his words. Once you sit down at the typewriter (or keyboard, or smoke signal generator), you open a vein and you bleed. You pour yourself into the story, and sometimes that hurts. But it’s always worth it.

3 thoughts on “Most writing isn’t writing.”

  1. Hemingway is a good writer to invoke for a naked writer who thinks in terms, not just of visceral honesty as a writer, but who is, as I am now, quite literally naked. I know I have a photo somewhere of Hemingway lying in his bed obviously covered only with the New York Times that he is reading; and, though I’ve looked fairly often for it over the years with no success, I know that I’ve seen a photo of him standing in front of his high desk, wearing nothing, but concentrating on the page in front of him, and the words he’s setting down there.

    Whatever one is wearing, if anything, “open a vein” is a good line. I try. Sometimes, when the writing is flowing, it really does come from my gut, which seems to chug happily along, working through my fingers to put words on the page. It’s a real visceral sensation. That’s when writing is pure joy.

    Other times, however, it feels as though I’m chipping away at a rock lining inside that same gut, just trying to get the next word, or even the next letter. That’s when writing is work, and at times hard work. And it’s also a visceral sensation.

    It’s at such a time — and this might contradict some of what you’ve written, Paul — that I’m most tempted to stare out the window for hours at a time. And it’s true: sometimes to get the juices going again, one has to look out the window, or to get up and get away from the keyboard and get active in some other way. Perhaps do the dishes, or go for a walk, or make friends with one’s garden. The last two are especially lovely things when is naked-getting person with the luxury to spend time out of doors wearing nothing: I don’t (sigh).

    But sometimes when the flow stops, there’s only one thing to do: stay at the keyboard or the writing pad, and keep on writing, keep on writing, keep on writing. And then one just may experience the joy of breakthrough.

    1. Hi Allen,

      You may contradict everything I have written. After all, you are you and I am not. I just put down in this blog how things work for me. Ask 100 writers and you get 100 ways, I think.
      Whatever way works for you is the way you should go about to write.

    2. I think it’s great to learn what works for different writers. I know for me, sometimes a walk or even a shower (actually, often especially a shower – no surprise, since of course taking a shower is a nude immersion) will help new ideas surge. Sleeping, of course, as well – or even, going through things in my mind just before falling asleep, which can be frustrating but it’s why I keep a notebook or at least my phone somewhere near the bed!

      Structurally I will often jump from A to G, as you say, Paul, and so I will go ahead and write G, because then at least I know where I’m headed when I go back to write B-F. And then there will be additional, constant modification along the way.

      I think your “smoke signal generator” is a terrific idea!

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