I’m resuming work on Keepers of the Flame. And along the way, relearning all the lessons I thought I’d picked up along the way. Chief of which is sticking to the manuscript, all the way to the bitter end.
Writing is hard. No ifs or buts about it. There are days when words seem to just fly across the screen, when the universe pours its collected wisdom into your hands and you can empty your mind and reach deep into the well of your soul and scoop out a bucket of gold to paint the page with the essence of creation. And there are days when it’s easier to get the cold earth to surrender her secrets. It is my experience that the latter tends to outnumber the former. And in between there’s a spectrum of days where you’re just typing to meet your quota, when you’re coming up with copper when you expect diamonds. Good, just not good enough.
In my experience, books aren’t written by flashes of inspiration. I’ve had them, the moments of flow that make words burn clean and fast and hot and it’s all I can do to keep up. They define every book and story I write, demarcating the break between reality and…someplace else, somewhere that stands just behind the veil of conscious thought. In a sense, that’s what I write for — and, I suspect, that’s what inspires every write to go the distance. When you fall into the moment, it changes you, and the more you find it the more you are changed by it, until you are defined by that purity of essence and you can do nothing else but spend your days chasing it, returning to the source of who you now are.
But the moment is not the writing. It helps, yes, it pushes words out at a level of brilliance you’ve never thought you had in you. But the spaces in between, those aren’t reached by the state of flow. They’re not challenging enough, not formed enough, not interesting enough, or else you’ve hit a drought and the bucket comes up empty.
The book ain’t going to write itself. Sure, there’ll be ordinary days when you can put in a good day’s work. Nothing spectacular, but not so horrible that you have to dump it. Perfectly adequate for the task, meeting every objective. It’s likely to take up a large amount of your writing time, too, but in my experience those days aren’t remembered in the same light as the ones defined by the days of brilliance. But there’ll be times when even this will seem impossible, when you can’t for whatever reason feel like you can put in solid work.
Therein lies the truest test of a writer’s soul, to see if they have what it takes to finish. Much less succeed.
The solution is simple, but brutal. It’s the grind. Grinding out words, day in, day out, whenever there’s a moment to spare. An hour here, ten minutes there, a page today and a chapter tomorrow. It means writing in every moment you can, regardless of conditions or how you feel. If you can drag yourself to the word processor and rub at least two brain cells together, that’s the time for writing. For grinding, if you have to strain the words through a foggy head or when the words remain stuck and need to be pried out one by one. But they will come out. They must.
There are days when I felt absolutely terrible and unable to write. I wrote anyway. I’ve come to learn that if you can’t perform at your worst you aren’t ever going to push the boundaries of your best, and if you are under contract you won’t have the time to waste. This is exercising the will, training it relentlessly, building up the capacity for growth and burning out the bad habits and other mental junk so when you are ready to transmute your soul into the page you have greater, higher, finer and more stuff to work with. When you can consistently grind your mind into dust and still be able to sprinkle the hard, coarse powder across the page, you’ll always be ready for the times when the muse shows up and ignites the soulfire that takes you to that rarefied state of transcendence. The days of flow will more than make up for the days of dust, but I’m coming to sense you can’t have the former without the latter. It is bound too deep into the human experience to disentangle.
Grinding might lead to horrible first drafts. I’ve had more than my fair share of those. But horrible drafts can always be fixed. You can’t fix a blank page. So I’m learning to push on, to leave the past to the past, to finish the job and then, and only then, double back and clean up.
Writers who have climbed to the heights of success all had one thing in common: the ability to grind it out. To finish what they started. I will follow in their footsteps. And that means back to Keepers of the Flame.
Back to the grind.