I like things to be secured once I’ve learned them: “There! That’s one big lesson nailed down! Done!”. I want to be able to learn something and then forget about it – it’s over and now I can tick if off as Learned, and move on. Furthermore, I like the idea of knowing where I’m going before I set off. I like a map, a plan, and a schedule. Clearly sign-posted parameters for success. I like a path and I like a destination. I like knowing where something is headed before I invest my time in it.
Where is this going? How will it turn out? Are we there yet?
Before I sit down to write my monthly column I like to know what I’m offering up, what it’s going to Be About. I like to be in the driving seat. It helps me believe that I’m in control. It’s useful in figuring out if I’m on the correct path to being a good writer. If the story is technically proficient, and the syntax is good, and if A leads to B then surely I can surmise that, eventually, I will arrive at destination Writer and put my feet up. Surely?!
Seriously, are we there yet??
This month I decided to write about the hilarity of travelling to see old friends. I determined in advance that I’d begin the column with an amusing anecdote about packing a suitcase, stop off at a lovely quip from a friend, then round the corner to the column’s finish with a smart punch line about friendship and baggage limits. Done. Decided well ahead of time. The path to Good Column mapped. I felt that smug assurance that my previous knowledge of How It’s Done would land us both, you and me, in Happy Reader Town… However, when I sat down to write I found something was very wrong.
As I sat with my perfectly scheduled and delicately formulated Plan I found that I was producing writing that was … Fine. I read over it. My ever-patient partner (and first reader of every little thing I write) read over it. We looked at each other and wrinkled our noses. Nothing technically wrong with it. Nothing that you could put your finger on. I couldn’t understand the problem. I had taken the very same steps I took that made it work last time. I had followed the Magical Secret Formula of Writing … I kept thinking, “But, I know how to do this, I learned it already …”
Oh dear God, I’ll never be there yet!
For me, the problem with having an end point, and with always knowing where you are in relation to it, is that you never discover anything. Nothing actually happens. Life and work become less about experiencing things and more about planning things. I don’t explore something in writing, I drag the reader down a path I mapped earlier. Like a righteous schoolmarm. No feeling only preaching. If anything is good, it’s good because it says so in the schedule. Now everyone, look like you’re enjoying yourself damn it, we’re about to arrive at the POINT!
Indeed my pre-formulated column was much neater than this one. Grammatically speaking, it was tighter than Chuck Norris. I had edited out the woopsies and uh-ohs, dotted more i’s and crossed more t’s than I have here. I had also deftly managed to erase any joy. I had carefully eradicated any messy jocularity, or parts that I’d written purely because they made me chuckle … Correctness had completely consumed merriment. The proper had devoured the delightful. It wasn’t entirely insincere, but it was completely soulless. I’d formulated the effing fun out of it.
The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever done any good work when I’ve definitively know where I was going and how I would get there. I’ve done competent work with a map. But for me, the opportunity to create something beyond the merely competent exists outside the borders of known territory. Edgar Degas once said, “Only when he no longer knows what he’s doing does the painter do good things”. I like Edgar. You just know he got there.
I am not an artist, and I don’t have a masterpiece. However as I stop to take in the familiar view provided by eternal lesson re-learning, I do have something to offer. What I have, are the words to turn my face towards yours, and not ask if we’re there yet, but say, “Look where we are now! Isn’t the scenery lovely?!”