One day last week while I was writing my hour, a curious thing happened. I came to the page uninspired: my promise to write was my only goad. On days when I’m uninspired, writing my hour feels like pure drudgery: more an act of will than creativity as each word ticks by like a slow-moving second-hand inching bit by bit closer to “done.”
But then, a pair of words appeared. I’d been describing a wending and rambling drive J and I had taken and how it took us through nearby neighborhoods I’d never seen. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote, how you can live in a place for years without exploring all of its streets, your feet following well-worn and familiar paths. This in turn reminded me how I learned to navigate Boston when I first moved here and relied upon public transportation, my knowledge of the city growing in discrete, piecemeal patches every time I explored a new-to-me subway stop and the neighborhood within walking distance of it. My knowledge of Boston was like a map drawn by foot, with scattered pockets that were explored and familiar while the largest portions remained unmapped and foreign: an inland archipelago of known neighborhoods stranded like islands in a vast and largely unknown landscape.
“Inland archipelagos” was the magic phrase: two words that shimmered to the surface of consciousness, announcing themselves as the title of an essay I’ve only begun to write. Those two words served as a kind of guiding or governing concept: the one central “hook” from which you can hang an entire narrative. Some writers need to start with a first line or a central image; some writers need to start with a title rather than discovering it by accident halfway between “I don’t know what to write” and “Done.” In my experience, though, the first line, central image, title, or other guiding concept doesn’t typically come first: instead, it arises only after I’ve groped around in the dark for a while, writing a meandering series of sentences that (seemingly) head nowhere.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize that this is how it typically happens: I find a subject to write about only after I’ve started writing. I often think of this as being like a runner settling into stride: you start off stiff and awkward, but gradually you relax into a comfortable pace…but that will never happen until you lace up shoes and get moving. You’ll never find your stride unless you stand up first.
When I write my daily journal pages, this settling-into-stride often happens around the third page, the first two pages serving as a kind of warm-up where I rehearse the mundane details of the day. Those first two pages are like the casual chitchat workers engage in at the start of a meeting, catching up with what’s new before their boss clears her throat and announces, “I called you together today to discuss…” That ellipsis is the crux of the matter—the matter of substance—the magical transition between “How are you” and “Let’s get to work.”
Sometimes, that matter of substance appears in the form of a title, or a first line, or concluding remark: “Here is something I want to write a longer essay about.” Other times, a subject simply arises without announcing itself: suddenly one sentence leads to another, one paragraph leads to the next, and the next thing I know, I’ve written an essay where once there was nothing: spontaneous inspiration.
This proliferation of words is like an amoeba dividing or a cancer cell multiplying: an insubstantial thing becoming something with real matter and heft. Suddenly you realize the coarse stuff in your hand can be spun into something fine, long, and strong. You’ve literally found your material, a sturdy textile of text that’s stronger than steel.