I've been reading craft books for several days now, mostly focusing on short stories, although the how-to-novel books are starting to creep onto a second shelf of my bookcase for library books. In one craft anthology (nearly two decades old now), On Writing Short Stories, I found Andre Dubus's essay "The Habit of Writing," which spoke to me for a few reasons. First, because as I've shared before I am not an every-day writer; instead, I am a patient writer and I believe I wait more than write. There's always some shame in this, as if admitting it marks me as less committed to craft and practice than other writers. So it was affirming and heart-lifting to read Dubus's opening lines:
"I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender."
He also says, when a "story is ready for me to receive it [. . .] I must write, with the most intense concentration I can muster." This is me, as well. When I am writing, I'm writing the thing itself and also writing (in my journal) about the writing and then I am writing (on this blog) about others' writing (or what I'm reading) because all of it feeds the writing that matters most.
Dubus goes on to discuss one of his own stories and how it came into focus. About his two main characters:
"Just follow them home, I told myself, and since then I have believed that you can write a story simply by becoming a character and following that character home. Or through a day or a night. Who among us is not a story, or several of them, every day? [. . .] Just follow the dots; become the character and follow; there will be a story."
One of the things I love about craft essays/books/anthologies is that you grow with them; you don't necessarily read, absorb, and 100% follow everything you've read and absorbed to the letter forevermore. There are some craft essays I return to again and again. Like Kate Bernheimer's "Fairy Tale is Form; Form is Fairy Tale." There are certain words of wisdom you just need to be reminded of, again and again. Then there are new lessons that you didn't even know you needed, until you find them and realize: Ah, yes, this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do.
A few days ago, I wrote about Ron Carlson's advice to "see it through," and, today, I'm layering onto this what Dubus calls "vertical writing." These are closely intertwined, I feel. At least, in the way I'm receiving their advice in relation to my own particular writing struggles at this particular moment. Synonymous with both "seeing it through" and "vertical writing" is what Dubus first introduces in his essay as concentration. He writes:
"I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for only a moment before writing, as a batter takes practice swings while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward [. . .]; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could."
And this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do. First take stock, as I did here, so I can assess and work with what I already have. Now it's time to concentrate, to move down instead of ahead. Then, I can start to see it through.