One evening I was a guest at a party when a doctor cornered me and started to discuss the writing process, beginning with his admission that he’d spend a couple of weeks at his camp where he would write and hopefully produce something that was readable. “That’s funny,” I said. “I’m going off on vacation and I’m going to practice brain surgery for a couple of weeks.” That didn’t happen, but it could have. Those many who don’t wrestle with words every day sometimes think that “putting it into words” is the easy part.

Bob Kalish observes life from a placid place on the island of Arrowsic (motto: You’re not in Georgetown yet). You can reach him at [email protected]

An afterthought: I once was hired to “put into words” the directions for a complex piece of machinery. In other words, a user’s manual. But they waited until the last minute of their deadline to hire a writer, namely me. They built in a time frame for everything but the writing, and expected me to save their rears.

For about four decades I taught college writing to adult students who weren’t really interested in writing, including many who hadn’t read a book since high school, but they had to be able to write clearly to graduate with a college degree. What I discovered with these students and the advent of computers was that they didn’t seem to know the difference between writing and formatting. They assumed writing and formatting were the same thing. The result was, I often received papers written in exotic, unreadable typeface and clip art and italics and bold and just about every choice in Microsoft Word.

Mothers sometimes come up to me and say their son or daughter wants to be a writer. I tell them to tell their offspring to take a couple of aspirin and lie down until the desire vanishes. Because writing is hard. To be a writer you need at least two things: boredom and curiosity.

And don’t forget faith.

Faith is necessary when you face the blank computer screen wondering what the next word should be. The process involves a life of insecurity. It’s this discomfort that leads to fear of not having anything to say that leads to attempts to assuage the discomfort by writing down an outline. Now you have somewhere to go, but the problem is there is no room for discovery. Writing is all about sitting down and discovering what you sat down to write. What a revelation. And what an odd life to lead, leading as it does to a way of living with insecurity. And there is faith. Faith that your mind will produce the words if you persevere with a sense of wonder. Instead of faith, some writers believe in outlines. An outline confines you to stay within its bounds, totally forgetting that you made up the restrictions. You create an outline and can’t get out of it.

The time to outline is when you’re stuck, when all the ideas you had have been used and there is still no focus. What are you trying to say, is a question a good editor will ask. When you sit down before the computer or typewriter or legal pad with a No. 2 pencil, when you face the angst of setting in order the chaos inside your mind, you are in good company. Stephen King stares just as blankly as you do when starting out. William Shakespeare, too. Come on in, the Muse beckons, the water’s fine.

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