Does absence make the writing stronger?

A couple of weekends ago, we returned to our tiny place on Salt Spring Island (SSI). We hadn’t visited for eight months, because of the extended trip to Australia. What happened in our absence?

  • Spiders moved in, about 4,126 of them. They festooned the rooms with sticky webs and left their pencil-dot droppings under their favourite spots.

  • Weeds choked the front walk.

  • I forgot how the oven worked.

  • When the internet service restarted, the server no longer recognized our modem and vice versa.

  • Our neighbour’s dog forgot who we were and approached us warily.

Neglect was a show stopper as I found when I went to work:

  • My writing had become became slow and ponderous, as though trapped by spider silk.

  • Adverbs threatened to choke the narrative.

  • The discipline of daily writing had weakened.

  • I’d lost touch with some of my characters. Worse still I wasn’t using Scrivener or even a basic spreadsheet to track them. What colour were the protagonist’s eyes?

On the other side of that coin, taking a break delivered these parallel benefits:

  • We discovered we were hanging on to a lot of things we didn’t use. A big clean up ensued and a carload of gently used household items went to the local thrift shop.

  • My prose was thick with extraneous scenes and description. I was able to edit ruthlessly.

  • Coming back to a favourite place after a long absence, refreshed my love of SSI.

  • When I looked at work I hadn’t seen for months, I found quality writing that can be improved and sharpened for publication.

Have you ever stepped away from a place or project for an extended length of time? Was it a happy reunion when you came back?

Are you losing it?

The best writing moments are when the characters speak to each other and the scenes unfold with surprising twists. When I work, these exhilarating moments occur at a rate of about one in a thousand. First I have to slog through many dull, prosaic hours before a gem glitters in the dust. 

Word count: 435                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve looked around for ways to beat the odds, to increase the incidents of strong writing. So far the only thing that improves my writing is practice. By practice I mean work: working harder, working more, working with focus. I don’t worry about whether or not I have the talent to write. Instead I put my faith in people who have gone before me:

  •  Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.
  • The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.Marge Piercy.

Work means sitting down to long, seemingly unproductive hours, even when inspiration is weak and I’d rather wash the kitchen floor. I have to be there, chipping away for the moments when inspiration ignites and talent erupts. I have to write the bad sentences to find what doesn’t work. I have to play the wrong notes so I can find the sweet ones. Yes there are demons: the empty page, the incomplete scene, the manuscript that is 95% written. These terrifying events often tempt me to throw up my hands, to stop writing altogether. Then I move past my panic and get to work.

One of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, Dame Margot Fonteyn, overcame her stage fright with additional practice. In 1949, as she geared up for her dancing debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, she had a bad case of butterflies. Her solution? Two extra hours of drills besides her regular workday of classes, rehearsals and performances.

Because talent—if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless.Elizabeth Hand 

Talent doesn’t develop on its own. It needs practice, education, and a chance to run free. So how do you get past your stage fright to let it grow? How do you ensure your talent doesn’t atrophy?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Vinit Sharma practising violin by Rockwithvinit