Thursday, June 23, 2005

Writing Is NOT Like Carpentry

It's a well-worn old saw. Writing class teachers always reach for things with which they may equate writing to the lay person: Writing is like a long walk through the woods; Writing is like breathing; Writing is like carpentry. As both a writer and the proprietor of a well-worn old inn, I have unique insight into that last simile. And I can tell you unequivocally that writing is not like carpentry.
I just finished rebuilding the front porch. I didn't want to rebuild the front porch, but it was falling down. I kept hoping that I'd wake up some morning and discover that it was completely gone, the victim of an extremely localized conflagration, or at least a drive by porch-napping. But the porch hung on bravely, shedding little bits of itself daily, dying of porch leprosy.
As I demolished it, then dug new footings, and reframed it, I began thinking about carpentry and writing. Carpentry is rational and methodical. You have an idea, you formulate a plan, you draw up the plan, you make a materials list and estimate the cost, you destroy, you rebuild, from the bottom up.
If pressed, I guess the "building from the bottom up" portion of the process could be equated with writing. But even that is a bit of a reach. That's the whole "vision and intent" thing. Sometimes writing works one way, sometimes the other. For example, you might be seized by a feeling, or moved by a character: that's your vision. You work out the intent afterward--the other characters, what happens, the story. Sometimes, you'll have some non-specific things in mind, a couple of characters that keep hanging around, and you just don't know what to do with them; they resist scripting, like all good writing. Then you see it: what the characters represent, what they're trying to say. You had the intent all along; the vision comes at the end.
That happened with my porch. I had the plan, rebuilt the whole porch, and was generally unmoved by the whole task. But when the porch was completed, and I stepped back and looked at it, my breath caught in my throat. The new little porch was beautiful. It was elegant and simple, the perfect fit for this old Vermont farmhouse. I immediately pictured a couple of old rocking chairs out there, some geraniums. I suddenly got the vision.
But banging nails, dragging lumber around, cutting wood? There's no art in that. That's just back breaking work. You have to be patient for the payoff...that's where the comparison to writing comes in.
I think I'm going to go out and sit on my new porch with a beer.