Sunday, December 23, 2012

Writing from Plateau to Plateau

Sometimes, in your growth as a writer, you get past an obstacle that has stood in your path for a long time. You find yourself suddenly able to do something you couldn’t do before, maybe even something you didn’t know you should be doing. That new ability could be using language free of cliché phrases, creating plots with sufficient peril for the protagonist that the reader wants to know the outcome, letting the characters develop through the action of the plot instead of through exposition, or writing about topics that have genuine urgency for you. You pass the obstacle, you know what you have to do next time you see a similar impasse. You’ve reached a new plateau in your writing.
Once you’re on that plateau, vistas open up. So many possibilities unfold for your writing that you couldn’t access before. Suddenly you get it. You feel empowered. It’s the literary equivalent of a growth spurt for a kid. Writing comes more easily to you. That doesn’t mean the path is level, but you’ve crossed terrain like this before, and you know you can get over the boulders and the chasms. Those moments in your writing stand out as crucial milestones that will help guide you through the rest of your career as an author.
But as you explore the plateau, you begin to see new kinds of obstacles. Why hadn’t you noticed them before? Suddenly they stare you in the face. That piece of writing that you had just used your new-found skills to improve—now other errors glare at you. Why are you still using verbs that aren’t active? The verb “to be” appears in every other sentence, slowing the flow of the action. It can’t possibly be time to revise again, right after you solved all the problems?
Yes, it can. The reason is that once we arrive at a plateau, new obstacles become visible that were hiding before. They were using the other difficulties as cover. Now the culprits have no more camouflage. It’s time to flush the new errors out of the bushes, and to work on those.
Is there no rest? To put it simply: no. 
As the French surrealist André Breton said in his poem The Estates General, “There will always be a wind-shovel in the sands of the dream” (“Il y aura toujours une pelle au vent dans les sables du rêve”). OK, I have to admit, I don’t really know what this quote means. What the heck is a “wind-shovel,” and could it lower my energy bills? But seriously, I read this passage from Breton as saying that change is as inevitable as shifting sand, or as the fresh desires that continually crop up in our dreams. Not only that, the tools themselves for the next change are something we can’t even imagine yet, like a “wind-shovel.”
In other words, with each new plateau we scale, we see the next plateau looming above. That may seem exhausting, but without that continual challenge, what would be the fun of writing?

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer


  1. You made a great point here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for your comments! Writing this blog helped me clarify my thoughts about how to keep moving forward in my own work.