Writing as Digging

Category: Writing

I recently read Nicola White’s blog post, ‘Stories need to be dug up, not built up’, and have been thinking about it a lot.

 Here’s an often-quoted passage from Stephen King’s On Writing: 

'Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.'

King’s last point resonates with what Nicola says in her post about attempting to write her novel primarily in accordance with plot, and the deadening effect this had on her work: “The structure turned out to be a cage.”

A few years ago I read Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear by the Spanish writer Javier Marias.  It drove me insane with its rambling, unpunctuated paragraphs and (it has to be said) plotlessness, but there was one passage that I found very inspiring - so much so that I went to the trouble of typing it out. It’s long, so I won’t quote all of it, but here’s what I hope is its essence:

'Most people are limited by their own lack of persistence, because they are lazy or too easily satisfied, and also because they are afraid.  Most people will go only so far and then apply the brakes... which is why they always fall short.  Someone has an idea and normally that one idea is enough, they pause, pleased with that first thought or discovery, and do not continue thinking, or, if they’re writing, do not continue writing more profoundly.

The really interesting and difficult thing, the thing that can prove both truly worthwhile and very hard work, is to continue:  to continue thinking and to continue looking beyond what is purely necessary, when you have the feeling that there is no more to think and no more to see, that the sequence is complete and that to continue would be a waste of time.  In that wasted time lies the truly important, in the gratuitous and apparently superfluous, beyond the limit where you feel satisfied, or where you get tired or give up, often without even realising it. At the point where you might say to yourself there can’t be anything else.So tell me, what else, what else occurs to you... what else can you offer, what else have you got?'

 So here’s how I’m seeing the metaphor of writing as archaeology:

Step One: Dig!

 To go with Nicola’s ‘mining’ metaphor:  writing into the void, with little notion of direction or plot, can feel like blundering about in a pitch dark mineshaft, tripping over rocks and getting increasingly disorientated and anxious.  Where am I going?  What if there’s nothing in here and the black void just goes on forever?  Where the hell is the light switch?  But I like to think there’s always something to be found in the mine if we just have the patience and courage to keep on digging.

Step Two: Dig deeper!

 For me this is a truly invaluable piece of advice.  Going that little bit further than I thought I could go, digging that little bit deeper, experiencing a scene that much more intensely, or as Marias puts it ‘taking the breaks off’: this is where I’ve struck gold in my own writing life. Or at least copper.  In Ani diFranco’s song ‘Fuel’, she urges herself to “dig deeper, dig deeper this time,” in the faith that beneath all the clutter and dross of everyday life, “there’s a fire just waiting for fuel.”

Tat Usher

Tat Usher received a New Writers Award in 2008.