I think that there are two breeds of people on earth: people who are clear from a very young age about what they want in life and how they are going to go after it, and people like me, who have never felt a clear sense of purpose and are constantly struggling to come up with one.
Although I wrote a lot as a child and as a teenager, I never really thought of myself as a writer. For one thing, I didn’t generally write fiction, and I didn’t know any writers. I came from a family of tradesmen, nurses, teachers and janitors. I was the first person in my family to go to a university. Writing as a profession existed in a different universe. I was also shy, uncertain and awkward. I developed an early habit of listening, spying, and surmising because outright asking was BOLD and unbecoming behaviour for a child in the era when we were instructed to “speak only when you are spoken to.” I couldn’t imagine being a journalist and having to ask people difficult questions for a living.
My career and my writing have become paths only through what could be described as a series of successive approximations. I would describe this process as setting out in a direction, discovering that it was a mistake, making a correction, getting a little bit closer, discovering another error, changing direction again and so on. Through this process of stumbling and making course corrections, combined with the machinations of fate, I have finally found myself in a groove that makes me happy most of the time.
The strange part of this process is that I always worked very hard to create clear goals and intentions for myself. I read all the self-help and career-advice books. I took all the surveys in the magazines. But for all my planning and intending I never seemed to end up where I thought I should. The more I tried to will myself towards a commitment the worse things seemed to turn out. Yet I cannot say I regret these misadventures. Once, I decided that maybe I should become a wilderness guide or outdoor education teacher. I enrolled in and finished the Wilderness Survival Program at Georgian College. This is what I learned: I hate to be cold and wet, the bugs love me more than anyone else, my severe phobia of caterpillars eliminates the better part of a month outdoors, most wild edibles taste really, really bad, and in a gruesome survival situation I would probably choose death. What I gained from this experience is Barb, one of the best friends I’ve ever had who is a joy to spend time with to this day— and of course, a lot of good stories.
Writing practice seems to go much the same way. When I sit down to write with a specific outcome in mind I usually end up somewhere different than where I intended to go. But when I sit down with no ideas about audience, no ideas about readership or marketing or publication, those are the times when the words just flow. I’ve been working hard to write a little bit every day, even if those words are never going to become anything marketable. Every so often, I accidentally write something that I love and that I’m enchanted by. When one of those little jewels crops up I will follow it wherever it wants to go and build a story out of it. I’ve found by following the discipline of letting go and non-doing, I’m actually getting a lot more done.
In the past I believed that when I was working on a story or a poem it was more or less fully formed after the first draft. My subsequent drafts were often just minor changes and “tightening.” Lately though, I’ve taken up a new approach which is to write the first draft, set it aside, and then write some or all of the story again from memory (kudos to Sarah Selecky for passing on this technique). What I am discovering is that each draft gets successively a little better: more detailed, more fully imagined, and more interesting. What is required is to let go of my attachment to the first draft and to let go of the idea that I can think and plan my way through this process. Some writers can and do create complete plots in outline before they start writing, but my brain just doesn’t seem to work this way. Whether it is genetics or nurturing or the alignment of the stars that creates this ability I do not know. I just know that when I take this approach of continually starting over (instead of just tweaking); the story begins to grow roots. The parts that are strong keep coming back. The parts that are weak blow away like last year’s leaves, and eventually the story just feels right, whole, and complete.
Successive approximations can land you at your final destination. Yes, it is slower than the direct route, but it is also infinitely more interesting. When you arrive at your destination after all of the detours you will find yourself holding something fascinating, and you will have lots of stories about all the places you visited along the way.