Yesterday, in my workshop, we talked about the La Brea Tar Pits. For me, the start of a project is like standing at the edge of a bubbling pool of tar. I know the bones of a story are in there somewhere, but the murk around it is thick: an oily, hot sludge of facts and details and characters and events bubbling around a central theme. Some writers can stand a foot from the edge and say, “Hey, I think I can see a dinosaur in there, just to the left of that tree. If I yank right here, I can dredge it up.”
That must be nice. Me, I’m the kind of writer—and I think we outnumber the others—who has to climb down into the pit and grope around in the simmering muck. Researching, reporting, interviewing, researching some more, until I start to discern an outline. Here—it might be here.
No wait, it’s over here.
People around the table were nodding as I described this process. I wasn’t the only one in the room who wades in the pitch. One of the things you keep realizing at a workshop is that writing is hard. It’s hard! Someone at the social hour—I was eavesdropping so I won’t say his name—said he kept thinking it ought to be easier. But then, he said, he realized: if it were easy, everyone would do it.
We in the workshop all knew the feel of tar pit, could remember yanking our limbs through the ooze. But looking around the table, I realized that everyone in the room had taken the first and hardest step. That’s the step where you decide to really do it. Not just to think about it, not to tell your sister or your husband or your best friend about your secret longing to do it, but to make the decision to write, and then to write. To carve out a space and a time to do it, and—this can be the hardest part—to tell everyone around you that yes, you’re actually going to do it. You may fail or you may succeed, but you’re going to a workshop, or a colony, or a shed in the backyard and sitting at your desk for hours and doing it. Doing the work: digging around in the tar and getting down to the bones.
Ginger Strand, a contributing editor of Orion, is the author, most recently, of Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate.