Writing As Discovery

For well over a month, each time we met, one of my clients repeated that he was almost ready to begin writing. “I’ve got just about another week or so of thinking this through, before my writing will really take off,” he kept assuring me. Before he actually put words to the page, he was certain he needed to master the subject he had chosen to write about. He thought he had to understand—and plan–from beginning to end, just what he wanted to say.

Today, I intervened. I didn’t talk to him about writing process. Or ask him to commit just to 15 minutes a day. I didn’t explain that it was his anxiety that was preventing him from sitting down to write, not his incomplete knowledge of his topic. I said nothing about how the longer he puts off writing, the less prepared he will feel.

Instead, I reviewed one facet of his topic for him, a facet we had discussed several times already, then told him to open his computer and write about the material I had just reviewed for him. My hope was that actually beginning to do the writing would go a long way toward relieving the anxiety that had been building within him for the past months.

So many of the writers I work with think that detailed outlining, vast researching, and long reflecting must be part of the writing process. “Otherwise,” one writer told me, “how do I know what I want to write?” Another writer assured me that he felt too inhibited to write unless he felt he had mastered the material before beginning to put words on the page.

While on the surface, these assumptions might sound reasonable, once you consider them for a moment, they become nonsensical—at least for most of the writers I work with. No writer is a tabula rasa, a blank slate empty of any ideas, stories, questions, etc. Most writers write about what they are passionate about, engaged with, committed to, know at least something about. Otherwise, why would they have decided to write about it in the first place? But many writers do not know that writing is, first and foremost, a process of discovery.

A confession here: I used to be one of those writers, who felt I needed to inform myself perfectly and completely before I began writing. Before writing one word, I engaged in long weeks or months of research, taking fastidious notes, even copying down entire paragraphs from secondary sources—just so I felt prepared to begin writing. And when I worked this way, my writing was dense and convoluted. It was only once I learned that discovery is an integral part of writing that I was free to begin expressing myself in a more fluid and engaging way.

After 15 minutes, during which time I heard my client’s computer clicking away, I asked him to please read to me what he had just written, which amount to several pages. “See,” I said gently, “I think you’re ready to begin writing. You have a lot to say.”

“You’re right,” he replied. “I thought I had to be completely prepared. But this was fun.”

We writers find so many reasons not to write. But the biggest favor we can do for ourselves is to grant ourselves permission to write. And understanding that by writing, we will discover what we want to say, what we think, and what the real story or thesis is, goes a long way to granting us that permission.

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