Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.
Joe Fassler has interviewed over 150 professional writers about their process. What did he learn? From The Atlantic:
The summer of 2013, I found myself on the phone with Stephen King, listening as he described how he wrote the opening sentence of It: “That’s one that I worked over and over and over.”
Drawing on four decades of work, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things to Doctor Sleep, the author recounted the arduous way his books usually begin—how he’ll spend weeks, months, sometimes years of nights lying in bed with a laptop, thinking, experimenting, fiddling with the words, until the language clicks. The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.
As my interviews got underway, I discovered something surprising: The artistic process never seems to get easier, not even for the most successful, famous authors. They, too, wasted months of time chasing down material that ended up being no good. They, too, were sometimes wracked by self-doubt. They, too, also sometimes felt a sudden, sweeping urge, as bold as lust, to give the whole thing up. A few glowing reviews in the Times won’t change any of that.
That’s true even for someone like Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner, whose books have sold tens of millions of copies. For him, disappointment is baked into the experience of authorship, and even the finished product rarely measures up to the initial gleam of inspiration. “You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true,” he said:
“And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.”
Above all else, writers are people who allow themselves the freedom to suck—unrepentantly, happily, even. They’ve learned through hard experience that out of failure comes something better. And that the only catastrophe, really, is the refusal to keep trying.
Richard Bausch described rewriting individual scenes dozens of times to get them right. John Rechy will go through so many drafts of a book he loses count. Amy Tan’s process is so painstaking that she likens it to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draftwork. “You know you’re going to write a bunch of garbage, most days,” Victor LaValle toldme. “And that’s okay.” The vast majority of writers I speak to seem to understand this: Writing usually means writing badly.