You get an idea you want to write about. It’s a beautiful thing, all precious and gold, an amazing thought, a stunning image, and you think, Oh my gosh, this is the most beautiful idea I’ve ever had. And this idea is like a magnet made of gold, and all these little golden flecks start collecting on it – other ideas.
Looking at this brilliant idea, your brain starts racing. You start envisioning what you want this story to look like when it’s finished. You can just see it, all solid and perfect, in its final form, and you want so much to create this story. People start to annoy you. Work starts to annoy you. Why can’t people leave you be? All you want to do is think about this idea.
But you don’t write about it yet – you want this idea to be strong enough to hit the page and look good. If you write too early about this idea, it turns into a bank of fog that burns away when the sun comes out. So you wait, you brood, and you get ready.
But the catch is, once you start writing – the moment the words start to hit the page – the work of imagination turns into a work of demolition.
Every word you write is a sledgehammer against that idea.
That beautiful story idea, even when it’s made up of images, is connected in your mind in a constellation of unspoken ideas, concepts, hidden meanings that have no direct meanings in words. The idea is rooted in emotions that you can’t name, feelings that clutch the foundations of this idea, down in the dark. But they aren’t in the dark because they’re evil, but because they’re feelings that you don’t understand, that you haven’t plumbed yet.
So as you translate this story to the page, and as you write about this glimmering golden thing, every act of translation is ripping parts of this image out of this constellation. You are groping for words that you don’t know how to say, words that don’t yet exist for you.
It seems like a simple process to move the thought from your mind to the page, to break an idea into its component parts. But every word is a solid thing, with every one bearing a particular meaning, and all the connotations they bring with them. As you try to shape this idea into words, the words pull the idea into different shapes. That’s not the right word, that’s not the right idea at all, you mutter, looking back at the spill of words on the page, like a track of blood from a wounded deer.
The writing of the idea is a journey, too, as you follow those words–that track of blood into the night forest. When you follow the words, you journey into yourself. You have got to be honest with yourself, brutally honest, even if it seems like the most scandalous thing in the world. You are going to see parts of yourself that you won’t like, but you have to write them anyway.
You’ll see glimmers of the idea as you walk into the night forest – which, actually, is a very beautiful place, though every scuff in the leaves shoots pulses of fear down your nerves, and sometimes you hear a cough that might be a mountain lion. Or you hear a bobcat scream, like an old lady getting murdered, and you just about turn inside out trying to get away.
When you get to the end of what you’ve written, you can’t help but look at it with some despair. When you read it, though, you see a few glimmers of the original idea in there – but now the writing has turned into something different. It’s like kintsukuroi – you repair the break with silver or gold, and now the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. The writing has turned into something altogether new, and though in the end it doesn’t resemble that lovely idea, it is a beauty of a new sort.
That’s okay. That’s how the work goes. One kind of beauty can be transformed into a different kind of beauty. That’s how the magic works.
Melinda R. Cordell is a 2012 Graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Missouri. Her book Women Heroes of the Civil War will be published in 2016 by Chicago Review Press.