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Laying Track

THERE SHOULD BE some artier way of saying it: I think of it as laying track. If you are America and you let yourself lay track, writing will let you move coast to coast, mapping your interior, enjoying the sights.

I believe that what we want to write wants to be written. I believe that as I have an impulse to create, the something I want to create has an impulse to want to be born. My job, then, is to show up on the page and let that something move through me. In a sense, what wants to be written is none of my business.

Early in my writing life, I tried to polish as I went. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page, had to flow from and build on what went before it. I thought a lot about all of this. I really worked at it. I toiled at being a writer. This meant long, stubborn hours writing and rewriting, crossing out and then adding back in again. Writing this way was frustrating, difficult, and disheartening, like trying to write a movie and cut it at the same time.

The danger of writing and rewriting at the same time was that it was tied in to my mood. In an expansive mood, whatever I wrote was great. In a constricted mood, nothing was good. This made writing a roller coaster of judgment and indictment: guilty or innocent, good or bad, off with its head or allowed to go scot-free. I wanted a saner, less extreme way to write than this. I wanted emotional sobriety in my writing.

Aiming for that, I learned to write setting judgment aside and save a polish for later. I called this new, freer writing “laying track.” For the first time I gave myself emotional permission to do rough drafts and for those rough drafts to be, well, rough.

Freed to be rough, my writing actually became smoother. Freed from the demand that it be instantly brilliant, perfect, and clever, my writing became not only smoother but also easier and more clear.

from The Right to Write