Write the things

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.
Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1936

Write the things. That’s the shortest, punchiest compression of the above that I can manage – I’m going to try and make it a mantra. I have put off writing – knowing that I lack the knowledge to satisfactorily contextualise, or the language to plausibly explore, or the voice and humility to accurately represent a truth – many more times than I can imagine. I can find fault in what I write before my fingers light upon the keys. This apprehension isn’t going anywhere but I am resolved to overcoming it more frequently than I have up to now, it’s cyclical after all, I know I am not a sufficiently good writer to express what I wish to so I avoid writing, remain that same mediocre writer, and continue to feel unable to express in writing all those things that agitate and spark within my mind.

Breaking a cycle takes great effort and can feel like an act of self mutilation – even when that cycle is one of self-sabotage – as all our habits, be they nice or vice, bring us some measure of comfort, security, and establish themselves as a part of our self. The self will fight to protect all its parts, often mustering more strength in defence of our demons than it will rally to preserve the better angels of our nature. My efforts at exorcising this one have so far yielded the following strategy, which I have baptised Kill Your Darlings Later, and which boils down to this:

Resist editing your work for as long as you possibly can.

That’s it really, I’ll expand on some of the particulars below but the core and the kernel of the strategy is to practice the discipline of allowing that imperfect draft in front of you to grow and swell into more and larger imperfections before you set about whittling it down to something purer or more idiomatic. Only once a draft has some bulk to it can the process of killing those darlings actually tease out the thread of it, else the process is just as likely to annihilate the whole of the work and render it more insurmountable even than the blank page you started with. Editing is dangerous. Premature editing is as dangerous to the writer as premature optimisation is to the programmer, avoid it like the plague that it is.

Writing on paper is a tremendous aide – this coming from someone who can only write in un-joined, ill-formed, block capitals at an excruciatingly low rate of speed. The limitations of pen and paper1 make it ideal for drafting. Paper abhors amendment of any kind: words can be clumsily replaced with a line-through, but you can forget jamming another couple sentences into the middle of that last paragraph, and only scissors and glue could ever insinuate that much-better-introductory-paragraph you just thought of at the top of that first page. This is a blessing! Forget better words, ditch that pretty little punctuation trick that just struck you, and damn the order of the thing – that’s editing, that’s danger, do that later – just write the next paragraph.

Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.
William Faulkner

  1. A type-writer perhaps offers the same benefits if you are inclined that way, though I can hardly say because I’ve never used one.↩︎︎