On American Idol the other night—yes, I’m a fan and I’m proud to admit it—I heard a bit of advice delivered to an Idolette by one of the industry mentors that rang a resounding bell of truth in my head. The mentor, a famous drummer that I’d never heard of, told the singer that she was thinking too much. He said that the secret to a great performance was to prepare, prepare, prepare before the show, but then to “free fall” once she hit the stage.
Hearing those words made me realize what’s wrong with my writing when it doesn’t work, and what makes it euphoric when I’m in the zone: When I think too much, the writing suffers. I believe that’s one of the reasons why I vastly prefer rewriting to writing. In those later drafts, I already know where the story is going, and I can allow myself the luxury of playing the in world I’ve created for my characters. I get to step into the story and free fall.
Sometimes, the free fall happens on first drafts, too. Actually it happens frequently. Perhaps that’s how I’m able to write a book per year and still have a demanding Big Boy job. I don’t know. That’s one of the things that I try not to think about too much.
I am on the record here in TKZ regarding my thoughts on writing classes and such—that at the end of the day, successful writers are created exclusively through the act of writing—but this throw-away line on American Idol fine-tuned the point in my head.
Books on writing and classes on writing can be of enormous value, but only as part of the preparation for free fall. But if the class assignments and the reading invade the writer’s consciousness during the process of writing, those taught words and techniques thrust a giant wind break into the airstream of the free fall. The writing becomes the fulfillment of an exercise rather than the flow of the writer’s imagination.
I think that’s why so much writing that flows from MFA classes feels stilted and leaves its creators so frustrated in the long run. The danger of the wind break is why I tell new writer to quit searching for rules, and to search instead for their own voices. The only way to do that is through butt-in-the-chair writing.
Let me be abundantly clear: workshops and writing books can be of enormous value, but only insofar as they provide an intellectual foundation for what is essentially an emotional experience for the writer. If the writer does his job correctly, that emotion will transfer to the reader.
I used to tell people in classes and speeches that the single major difference between the first three (unpublished) books I wrote and the first book to get published was that when I wrote Nathan’s Run, I was less concentrated on Writing A Book (that phrase should be read with rolled Rs and an exaggerated English accent) and more focused on telling a story.
From now on, I’ll tell people that the difference was that with Nathan’s Run, I allowed myself to free fall. I inserted myself into the world I’d created, and I wrote from the heart.
So, dear Killzoners, what do you think? Are you ready for a free fall? You’ll note that I never mentioned anything about a parachute—or about the potential for a very hard, very uncomfortable landing.