Approach to Writing

Method or Madness? What is your approach?

Before I began to write seriously, my conception of a book’s birth was similar to the birth of the Greek goddess, Athena. According to mythology, she sprang, fully grown from Zeus’s head. Ouch. I was convinced a book was beyond my capability. I had no ideas for an overall plan, much less the myriad of details that would lead and build to a conclusion. Even after I had completed my first manuscript I did not consider myself an author in the true sense of the word. Each page, each chapter had been written blindly. I had to go back and figure out what I had said and done the previous day to go forward the next.  No Athena, complete and whole sprang from my head. I had no vision beyond completion.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his first novel, Treasure Island, divested me of the misbegotten illusion. He writes of his many attempts to finish a book only to have each evaporate at mid-point. The inspiration for Treasure Island came from passing time in painting an island map that became the center of his story. A young boy and Stevenson’s father served as his lab rats. Each morning he wrote one chapter and each afternoon read it aloud to his captive audience. For fifteen days and for fifteen chapters the story nearly wrote itself. Athena emerging from the head of Zeus? Hardly. Stevenson writes of the experience like an exciting, but extended period of labor. On day sixteen it halted. He says his “words dried up” and another story stood unfinished.

Of course we know how it ended. The process, the creativity, the story this time would not remain unborn as had nearly a dozen previous attempts. Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, Billy Bones and the rest were revived and the classic tale was eventually delivered.

Method – where each detail is plotted and planned, or madness – where the words fly, barely thought, in a frenzy from the fingertips. What does it matter? The birthing story of each book is as unique as the birthing story of each of my nine children. I have experienced both method and madness, as well as varying combinations. I no longer fret over the proper approach to writing. I find I am in good company.


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