On Story-craft & Patience


There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven. 
Ecclesiastes 3:1

Since I've started writing in earnest, I've begun a campaign to absorb information on how to write well (or at least, better). There are definite patterns in the world of writing instruction, and I've gotten to the point where one person's piece of advice sounds suspiciously like that of the person before. I could spiel an enormous list of writing do's and don'ts at the drop of a hat.


Anyway, one thing everyone seems anxious to impress upon us young scribblers is the fact that Inspiration must frequently be pursued, snared, and dragged home by the hair. The experts waggle portentous forefingers and inform us that, if you sit about waiting for Inspiration to come find you, you could potentially wait forever.

I do not pretend to be any sort of writing expert, and I am generally content to bow to the superior authority of the great and glorious Published Authors. But sometimes, little doubts begin to niggle in the back of my mind. One especially persistent doubt has been resurfacing whenever I think about Inspiration. 

I am in agreement that I won't accomplish much if I wait for the perfect words, the perfect idea, the perfect characters to simply materialize in my brain. Writing is work. Story-craft is a skill. Like any other skill, perfection can only be attained via the tedious route of practice, practice, practice. 

But I've never been much of a one for dragging other folks (real or imagined) about by the hair. The idea of sitting down and simply forcing out a story seems...well...a bit forced. Furthermore, I humbly submit that forced art is no true art at all. 

So that got me thinking...

I wonder if this whole idea of coercing Inspiration into working for us is not, in part, a product of our societal mindset. Americans don't like waiting for things. We've bought into instant gratification. We want it, and we want it now. This 'go get 'em' attitude is okay (even beneficial), up to a point. Then we start ignoring the fact that some things just take time and patience. I'm beginning to wonder if our impatience is not at least partially responsible for the many poorly crafted stories currently infesting America's bookshelves. 

Good things take time. It seems to me that a story must go through a certain maturing process before it can become more than just another nice, but wholly forgettable, story. Truth may be understood in an instant, but only after a process of revelation and preparation. The height of beauty may be attained in one shining moment, but only after much careful craft and polishing. A good story - a great story - contains both truth and beauty. So it seems logical that the best stories will be a very long time in the making.  

During the Advent season, we joined the company of Old Testament priests, prophets and kings in eager expectation of the Messiah. At length, He arrives 'in the fullness of time'. I like the phrase 'fullness of time'. It conjures the image of perfection. Of pieces slowly falling into place, of patient waiting, of doubts that maybe it's not going to work out, after all. 

These doubts are banished when He is revealed at last. Looking back, we see how each event, each seemingly unrelated piece of the historic puzzle, dovetails perfectly into the next. But in the moment? In the hustle and bustle of life? On a daily basis, our human ideas and plans often seem to cast a shadow on those of the Divine. We forget about patience. We race too quickly along the slow, winding road to fulfillment, and ultimately, we lose the path altogether. We go stumbling off into the quagmire of instant gratification. We screech our mantra of 'we want it now', until our mouths fill with mud and we suddenly realize that we're sinking. Then, perhaps, someone comes and leads us back to solid ground, and we continue more slowly, with a new appreciation for the virtue of patience.

If I've learned anything from all my creative pursuits, it's that 'if it is to be, it will be.' There's no use barging ahead, wrapped up in the mania of accomplishment. If things aren't working the way they should, the wisest course is often to simply lay the poem or story or photo aside and work on something else. If the idea behind the project is a good one, then it will resurface...eventually. One time, it took me a month to complete an eight stanza poem. I've only recently begun to work on some story ideas that came into my head years ago. I've taken hundreds of pictures without getting a single shot I truly loved. And all of that is okay. 

Sometimes, it's fine and good to stop working on a project, or to delay starting a new one. Sometimes, a lack of inspiration is a signal that it's time to quit. Maybe I need to abandon the project entirely, or maybe I just need a break and some fresh perspective. To stop is not necessarily to fail. I don't always have to hunt down Inspiration and make her work for me, and if I do, then it's probably time to re-evaluate some things. Creativity is a process. It's work, but it's also growth. At times, we may catch hold of ideas that are simply too big for us. At such times, we have to stop obsessing over the idea and let ourselves grow a little. We can't rush growth, it just takes time.

It is good to remember that we are all mere dabblers in a craft mastered only by One. To Him, 'a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.'

Have a little patience.