Every avid fisherman has the same goal: hook the big one. Some anglers never land that elusive monster, while others come close, having only a broken line in their boat or a mysterious shadow lurking in their memory to show for it.
So what does this have to do with writing? Well, like fishermen writers have the goal of writing the “perfect” story, just like fishermen have the goal of catching the “perfect” fish- one that is undeniably impressive- one they can show off to practically anyone and elicit a positive reaction, as well as a curiosity about how this achievement occurred. What an a-lure-ing proposition…
Stories are magic, but the writing process can be grueling, disappointing, and painful, just like fishing (minus the worm guts). Clearly, the equipment is different. For writing, you need your mind. That’s it. No poles. No barbed hooks. No spotty depth finders. The depths of writing are limitless.
If you asked someone what writing looked like, I imagine most would envision someone typing on a laptop or maybe scribbling into a notebook. In other words, they would describe the ACT of writing. To me, writing is 95% thinking and the rest is simply dictation. Thinking occurs (or at least should occur) in all areas of life. This is where writing actually occurs- with your experiences and observation of the world. The act of writing is the easy part. Thinking is the true challenge.
While the goal of landing the “big one” is the same for both writer and fisherman, there is one important difference: writers don’t have a body of water to “fish” in. At least, not yet. Therefore, it is the writer’s task to “write the lake” in order for the megafish they seek to have a chance at existing. It is not enough to just think a fish out of thin air because they dwell underwater, not in the sky. Well, maybe a flying fish, but only momentarily.
The catch-22 of creative writing is that you don’t know what to write until you have an idea, but you can’t really have a full idea until you start writing something. So where do you start? Somewhere. Anywhere. Just start. Don’t assume that the fish will suddenly appear because it never does.
So when I say, “Write the lake,” I mean explore every element that might surround the first inkling of a specific idea. Heck, even if it’s something that doesn’t quite feel related to your idea, write it anyway. Surprising yourself is one of the great joys of being a writer. Go on to write the water, the dock, the weeds, the piece of frayed rope, the passing sailboats, the sand, the waves, the lilypads, the girl skipping rocks, the breeze, the birds, the sunshine, all of it. Create a world that your impressive fish could surely thrive in. Writers may complain, “But I want to write a fish!” Well, you can’t just write a fish. No one can. Ernest Hemingway once said (or wrote), “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit.” So, if you don’t like the idea of writing a lot in order to get a little, take it up with one of the greatest.
Anything can be turned into a strong idea as long as you recognize that there are no limits to your imagination and that every piece surrounding your idea can serve the valuable purpose of getting you one step closer to landing your prize fish. The value that each of these elements provides is entirely up to you and how you choose to utilize them. If certain ideas don’t end up getting used at all, that’s fine. That’s what the process is- long and messy, with more being cut than being used. Understanding this frees you up to let it rip, but to also rip it up.
Some say that writing a story is like putting together a puzzle. It’s actually much more complex and difficult than that. Writing a story is like putting together a puzzle when the pieces don’t exist yet. You must first write those pieces, then make them fit. However, they can never be forced together; they must conform naturally. Some pieces may be tossed away, while others may simply need to be shaped differently.
This takes trial and error and the ability to step back from what you’ve written and make an honest assessment of it. Just as a muralist needs to get up close and paint the finest of details, she also needs to step back and view how this smaller piece functions within the larger whole. This process of being up close and stepping back repeats over and over, maybe hundreds of times, until the story works- up close, as well as from far away.
The elements of the lake represent any potential component of your story: a setting, type of character, plot idea, specific theme, or any specific research you may have to do. Then, by critiquing your idea, you should be able to start a door-opening process that expands and improves it.
After investing a few hours, step back and be a critical reader. Ask the right questions, then come up with clever answers. Dive in again and write without judgement. You may have to write 10 or more pages in order for a new door to open with one solid line. This may change your idea entirely, but if it improves it even the slightest, then those 10 pages were well worth writing. Your lake is now becoming visible through the fog. Grab your pole.
Soon, the story will get more focused and that big fish you sought for so long will swim into view as if it was always there. You may have to pull a few weeds off of it, but at least it’s finally in your net. The reader will then have the pleasure of enjoying it without ever knowing the process it took to catch it, believing that you simply snatched it as it fell from the sky. Magic.