Spilled Ink Issue 73 Jul, 2010

Change happens. We’re here early.This column on writing in Nepal was scheduled to begin next month. But, well..., here goes.

I usually write in the comfort of my study (‘office’ sounds colorless, and ‘den’ implies some sort of iniquity). My ‘study’ is spacious, has a solid desk and chair, book shelves and a sunset view. This essay, however, was started on the verandah of a Chitwan jungle lodge. I went there to write, between elephant rides and nature walks. Birds calling in the forest and two rhinos cavorting in a nearby slough kept me company. The writing came easy... Well, almost easy—it took only three drafts instead of five or seven.

I am a writer of the mandatory revise-and-rewrite school. The process is like a twisted vine; rarely does the ink flow in a straight line from start to finish. Thankfully, this piece came together well, and the jungle backdrop provided the ‘Nepal’ ambience.  

The noted writer, William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well), once appeared on a writers’ panel with a surgeon who had recently taken up writing. “Writing is easy and fun” said the surgeon to an audience of aspiring new journalists. “Writing is hard”, said Zinsser. “I never rewrite”, his opposite said. “Rewriting is the essence of writing,” Zinsser retorted. When it isn’t going well, the surgeon/writer said, “I stop and put it aside for another day”. Then Zinsser laid down the law: “The professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it”. I’m on Zinsser’s side. Revising is not optional and maintaining a schedule is the norm. Enjoyment comes later, when you see the results in print.

How to make writing easier? For one, the writer must be as comfortable as I was on the verandah. A cool breeze cut the jungle heat, and I was relaxed and inspired. Writing is not always like that, however. I typically write, rewrite, delete, and start over again, while sipping a cup of bold coffee. Some days I am happy to have crafted just one decent paragraph.

Zinsser’s primer On Writing Well   provides inspiration. “There isn’t any ‘right’ way to do such personal work”, he says. “There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you.” Then he notes that “Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by computer, some by talking into a tape
recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first.”

The best writers put in long hours polishing their work. The greatest weakness I’ve noted among new writers is neglecting to rework their prose, to get their thoughts in order and correct the inevitable mistakes of spelling and grammar.

My advice (and Zinsser’s) is to write something every day, and take care to do it well. If nothing else, keep a daily journal. Later, it may inspire a great story. Good writing!  g dm

If you are a writer and would like to spill some ink as a guest contributor to this column, contact me at don.editor@gmail.com.