Writing through the curves

At the end of each day my partner, Petra, asks me “How did writing go?”

I typically reply either “good”, which means “Has the Nobel committee called, I didn’t hear my phone…”, or “meh”, which means “I burnt it all in a barrel in the backyard, was there not ash falling from a bleak gray sky on your way home from yoga?”

In motorsports, racers pursue something called ‘the line’. It’s the optimal path through a course, and following it allows a vehicle to consistently maintain top speed. Choosing how to traverse the line through corners, where a driver must slow down to maintain control while also positioning for maximum acceleration through the curve, is a critical component of any race strategy.

That sounds like I know a lot about competitive driving. In reality I just read a Wikipedia article on the topic and can barely parallel park.

For a long time I’ve labelled writing days as either “good” or “bad” based largely on how many words I’ve added to whatever story I’m working on. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking of the process differently. Less like a linear sprint, where any given point in the path is essentially like any other, and more like a Formula 1 course, where the path is full of twists and hairpin turns.

My objective is still to move quickly and efficiently toward my goal — stories tend to rot and fall apart in my mind if they sit too long without getting on the page — but thinking of the process as a race with curves has shown me that sometimes the fastest way to reach the checkered flag is to slow down.

Some days I write on a straightaway: the plot has momentum, my characters are doing and saying things that are just so them, and I see the scene clearly. These are days I’ve typically labeled “good”. Other days I write through a corner: a precocious new character shows up, a cataclysm changes the very shape of the world, or years pass between one chapter and the next. The story is changing direction, I can’t clearly see what’s ahead, and I’m forced to slow down. These are days I’ve typically labeled “bad”.

I’ve been wrong.

I’m learning that while it feels good to write at breakneck speed and feels bad to pump the brakes and downshift, they’re both equally essential writing modes. One provides the delicious thrill that is the whole reason I write, while the other keeps me from flying off the track and ending up battered and confused in the trees.

More and more, as I learn to think this way, I’m actually enjoying those days when the story abruptly changes direction. I’m starting to trust the line. Partly because I’m beginning to understand there’s all sorts of wonderful things to discover in the curves — they’re often stories within the story — and partly because I know there’s likely a stretch of wide open road just around the corner.

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