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SLANT LETTER: Welcome to the Process
Welcome to the process.
This semester I’m taking an Old Testament Foundations course in my seminary studies, and in reading through Genesis I found a tiny story-shifting detail I had not noticed before. Even in a perfect world, when all is new and nothing is broken yet, the creative process begins in the dirt. The very creator of the cosmos plunges his hands in the grime of earth to fashion human life.
It’s so easy to romanticize the writing process. We think of it as grand and sophisticated; we imagine channeling The Greats, an early bird meeting with a pour-over coffee and our personal muse. But I’ve found this much to be true in the creative life: the only way to get to the gold is through the grit [tweet this]. Even in paradise.
In other words, welcome to the process. Writing does not merely exist in the world of ideas. At its most sacred essence, it is elemental—sleeves rolled up, soil and scratch under fingernails, sifting through the grit to mine for gold.
I love how Natalie Goldberg, in her incomparable Writing Down the Bones, describes this elusive art:
“Every time we begin, we wonder how we did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.”
Writing is not math, so it is not linear—it’s all slant! It is not designed to chart a single, bright line from epiphany to prose. To me, the process looks more like a jungle of tangled, interconnected ideas—connections, revisions, cross-outs, all vibrating and alive with revision in real-time. This is how the brain works. And make no mistake, it is working hard. Your brain generates more electrical impulses and connections in one day than all the cell phones on the planet put together. Respect!
So what does one need for a journey with no maps? At least, I think, two things.
First up, you need to fire your inner critic. Get her out of here—you have work to do. This is not the time to micro-manage your language or berate yourself for not being Anne Lamott (there’s only one Anne Lamott, guys). This is the time to follow your nose and let intuition lead you into new and wider spaces. You can’t do this with the voice of perfectionism passing you frantic notes.
To tap into your most creative space, the control perfectionism loves must be traded up for something better and ultimately more fruitful: curiosity [tweet this]. If control is about cordoning off and best laid plans, curiosity is about exploration and experimentation—generally good qualities for a journey without maps.
If perfectionism loves control, then its nature is to also hate failure. But fear of failure often keeps us from our best art. Of course, there will always be an element of fear in the writing process, and we need not have illusions about that. This is scary stuff! As it should be—that’s how we know it’s worth something. Slashing sections that no longer serve the whole, writing your dangerous, dishing out a hot mess of a rough draft without self-censoring, killing your darlings—all of this bears risk.
Yet here we have another opportunity to trade up: in exchanging our fear of failure for the courage to risk. If fear of failure holds you back from your best creative efforts, then the courage to risk propels you forward. Truth is a live wire, and dealing with it always requires courage. Surely that is the heart of telling it slant [tweet this].
I encourage my authors often (nearly as often as I remind myself): trust the process. So I’m excited to move into the next few issues of our letter here that will help us as you go deeper into yours. Here’s a sneak peek of what we’ll be jumping into:
The art of paying attention
The art of naming
The art of making connections
The art of the rough draft
The art of editing
Because for all the mess involved in the making, there is gold to be found. Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, whatever you like.