Saturday, June 21, 2014

On Writing

Writing is not easy.

Writing well is damned hard. Harder than it looks to those who don’t do it, or who equate dashing off an email or a stock-form business letter to writing an essay, or a story, or a book.

Writing that flows well, that uses just the right words in just the right rhythm to capture the thoughts that urged its creation, is an art and a craft. It’s an inborn talent and a skill gained only through long practice and willingness to keep trying through failures and flops. It grows from a lifetime of experience; it blossoms from the inspiration of the moment; it needs both to work.

I just spent a quarter of an hour writing and rewriting the above, what took less than a minute to read. Did I make it look easy? It wasn’t. I’ve been mulling over this topic for a good part of the day, composing and recomposing this essay as I drove, as I tended my horse, as I went about various other mundane tasks. I’ll go back over every sentence in this thing before I hit “Post”, several times more, and still be dissatisfied with patches here and there where I fail to capture exactly what I wanted to express.

Sometimes the things I write burst forth like Athena from Zeus’s forehead – fully formed and alive. Sometimes slicing through my forehead, scooping out slugs of gray matter, and sluicing them onto the page would be easier than struggling through the labor of composition. (I’ve framed and reframed this particular paragraph several times over the course of my mullings; it may well see further tweaks before I’m done.)

The most stream-of-consciousness passage I ever wrote was about the death of my first horse, Nick. It flowed volcanic from me into the email telling our friends of his loss:

I don't know how to write this. We put Nick down today. I went up to be with him whle the vet took blood to test for EPM. The vet was there when I got there. Nick was under the bank barn with the mare Roxy. He was glad to see me and he gobbled the doughnut and horse cookies I'd brought him and he wanted his belly scratched but he was weaker, I could see that, since the Sunday before when I'd last seen him. He was tired, tired of fighting to go on, and so wobbly he almost fell just moving into position to get his belly scratched.

The vet was so kind. Donna told me she'd seen a much younger horse with the same injury who'd never recovered and that I was right to let him go. She showed me the place on his spine where she believed the injury was. We started to lead him -- just with a rope around his neck, Nick's always been such a good guy -- we were taking him up the slight slope to where I'd chosen to bury him if it came to that. He tried to follow me but halfway up he lost his balance backwards and sagged down. He folded rather than slamming down, lay on his side with his feet higher, picked up his head and tried, started to try to get up. I knelt by his head and comforted him and he laid his head back down and trusted me and I stroked his face while the vet gave him the needle and he went so softly so gently he never even drew the harsh agonal last breath. Just... gone.

Anne was at work, distraught because I think she knew what I would decide when I saw Nick. I called her when I made the decision and afterwards. Donna comforted me as best she could, stayed with me for quite a while afterwards talking and helping me deal with it. We covered his body with a dropcloth and I cut strands of his mane and tail and got his tack into the car and drove to Concord where Anne was working and we cried on each other for a bit. And then I drove home.


That was written in 2005, the day of Nick’s death, and it torrented out. I tidied it up a bit before sending, but that was all. In 2010 I wrote a blog entry about euthanasia and reused it – but edited:

A couple of days later I drove up to meet Anne's vet at her farm to discuss what next. I walked down to where Nick was hanging out under the bank barn with Anne's two horses, the vet by his side. And I knew.

He was glad to see me and he gobbled the doughnut and horse cookies I'd brought him and he wanted his belly scratched (oh, how he loved having his belly scratched! He'd follow you around the paddock slinging his flank at you, demanding more) but he was weaker, I could see that, since the Sunday before when I'd last seen him. He was tired, tired of fighting to go on, and so wobbly he almost fell just moving into position to get his belly scratched.

The vet was so kind. Donna told me she'd seen a much younger horse with the same injury who'd never recovered and that I was right to let him go. She showed me the place on his spine where she believed the injury was. We started to lead him -- just with a rope around his neck, Nick was always such a good guy -- we were taking him up the slight slope to where I'd chosen to bury him if it came to that. He tried to follow me but halfway up he lost his balance backwards and sagged down. He folded rather than slamming down, lay on his side with his feet higher, picked up his head and tried, started to try to get up. I knelt by his head and comforted him and told him he didn't have to try any more and told him I loved him and he laid his head back down and trusted me and I stroked his face while the vet gave him the needle and he went so softly so gently he never even drew the harsh agonal last breath. Just... gone.

Anne was at work, distraught because I think she knew what I would decide when I saw Nick. I called her when I made the decision and again afterwards. Donna comforted me as best she could, stayed with me for quite a while afterwards talking and helping me deal with it. We covered his body with a dropcloth and I cut off keepsake strands of his mane and tail. After Donna left I stood leaning on the fence for a while, staring at Nick's body, and cried. Finally I got his tack into the car and drove to Concord where Anne was working and we cried on each other for a bit. And then I drove home.


Which version is truer? The passage written in the moment’s passion, or the reconsidered version? I cried in the rewriting, in the reliving of remembered pain. It was as true for me then as in the original writing. And that moment’s passion? That flowed from 13 years of my life with Nick, from all that we’d been through together, all that we’d meant to each other, all that my life had been and had become because of him. That had to be written when it was first written; that remains the truth for me in a calmer, quieter time of my life.

That is what, for me, writing is, good writing should be – the distillation of one’s life in the medium of the moment’s passion, set down in words that march or leap, or sing or weep, that flow or crash or float or burrow deep into the reader’s soul. Words that take hold of the thought and pin it to paper, enlarge it, color it, find its essence and expand its scope, take it not for granted but for a stepping stone to further understanding. That’s what I strive for, anyway. Do I always succeed? Hell, no. Not even close, sometimes. But I keep trying.

I’ve spent a couple of hours on this so far (make that more like three, now), skipped lunch, dug back into old files and old emotions, rooted around for the right words, edited, added, deleted, rewritten, and now I’m going to post it. Even though I’m not quite satisfied, even though it’s not even mentioning some of what inspired me to begin writing it.

But so it goes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Further thoughts on what it takes to write well, and the damned impudence of those who'd steal the creative work of others, essays so good I couldn't do them justice without quoting way too much of them to stay within Fair Use guidelines:

http://www.stonekettle.com/2014/06/thieving-bastards.html

http://nc-narrations.blogspot.com/2014/06/and-horse-you-rode-in-on.html?showComment=1403380057694#c7071173337794865534

2 comments:

susanbsooz said...

Loved this one Laura...the imagery is stellar. Yes, writing....really good writing, takes time. Thank you for taking the time to share....and write!

NC Narrator said...

Excellent job (and thanks for the mention)! I love those days when the words flow, but they are few and far between. More often it goes the other way, and my family has learned not to approach when I'm hunched over the keyboard muttering to myself. The writer in their natural habitat is unpredictable and easily irritated!