building castles in the sand

Writing feels a bit like acting to me. Every now and then (okay, more frequently than that) I start thinking that every word I type is total rubbish, that I’m a fraud, that I don’t really know what I’m writing about, and worst of all, that someone is going to have to read my drivel (this is perhaps heightened when it’s an essay whose due date is looming. Of course I have no idea if actors feel like this (having stage fright and all, I’m not usually heaps keen to get up in front of people), it’s just a suspicion.

When I write essays, I quite frequently feel like I’m pretending to know what I’m talking about. Say it with confidence and people will believe you, right? I see holes in my argument, and feel like the well worn phrases I use are boring and trite. I feel sorry for the marker. I feel like I’m wearing a mask, an ‘I know something, am thoughtful and eloquent and have something to add to such-and-such debate’ mask.

It’s not comfortable.

I’ve been reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s a book of instructions on writing and life.

Bird by Bird

She writes like she lives inside my head, and it makes me feel normal. Like this:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do).

I love writing. But it’s hard. Sometimes it feels like beating my head against a brick wall just to squeeze a few words out on to the page, words that I know I will end up re-writing or probably deleting. Why would I want to do such a thing? This is why:

You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.

Imagination is such a precious gift. I love being able to build sandcastles with words. But like a sandcastle, it normally takes a few attempts to get a good one. We don’t need to know what the castle will end up like, only where this particular bucketful of sand will go.

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.


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