Writing is tough.
Writing is tough. At any level. From learning to put one word after another (and in order!) to construct one meaningful sentence to the classic high school essay to writing award-winning books, it isn’t easy. It’s a rewarding kind of tough, though. Challenging but rewarding as most creative ventures tend to be.
The blank page can be a fearsome opponent. The nothingness intimidates. One of the magical rewards of writing is overcoming the mountain of blank space with a word or an idea. The breakthrough lets the creative gears fall in place and allows the river to flow.
Perhaps as daunting as the blank page is a second barrier to writing. Its roots lie in the way we are taught to write from day one in elementary school. It’s constrained, tightly-focused writing. The expectation a well-written sentence has to come out of the gate and hit the center target with great precision using a minimum of words. Don’t get me wrong, focus is an absolute in teaching beginning writers. What would written communication be like if we all wrote exactly like your favorite five-year-old breathlessly telling the story of how the clown at the birthday party tripped and popped the balloon elephant he was making which scared the magician’s rabbit who escaped and pooped while hopping across the birthday cake?
So, out of necessity, we are taught to write tight from the beginning. We are taught we must not take a false step off the path or else, like in Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, we crush a butterfly and scramble the entire space-time continuum. But what happens when we’re ready to take a step and can’t see even a hint of a path? Like with the blank page, we can get stuck. Paralysis by analysis.
See? Writing is tough.
So, what’s the remedy?
Well, we first need to loosen the thumbscrews of the deeply ingrained idea of user-focused writing. We need a distraction to help us step back and attack the blank page and/or the paralysis of a constrictive focus. Pull back and give yourself some space. That’s what drafting is. It’s finding your way but on a wide and sometimes rambling path.
(Psst, come closer. I don’t want the writing police or your high school English teacher to hear this.) There are also rabbit holes! Yes! The dreaded rabbit hole can help your writing in more ways than you think if you use them with discipline and measure.
The rabbit hole of research is one of my personal favorite places to hang out as a writer. It’s part of what brings me joy as an ever-curious 58-year-old writer. I used to feel guilty about this research rabbit hole obsession until I discovered that, while the rabbit hole can be a distraction if entered unchecked, it was creating path after path after path for my writing. Paths forward, new paths, paths that veered away from dead ends on discarded writing projects. What has always been considered a waste of time and focus became a great creative tool for me.
The rabbit hole has become a way to fight through blank page syndrome and break the shackles of tight, and often restrictive, focus that is still ingrained in my brain from elementary school. It’s an idea generator, a brainstorming tool, and a source of necessary or (often at the time) obscure facts which may worm their way into future stories. Out of chaos comes order.
Chaos into order.
The tricks to making the rabbit hole work for you as a writer are simple but can be difficult in execution. The first trick is to stay the master of the rabbit hole, whether it’s the internet, the library, a stack of articles, or books. You can’t turn yourself over completely to it and tumble endlessly from researching what kids might have eaten on the banks of the Nile in the Old Kingdom period to find yourself 45 minutes later checking out the latest Beyonce videos and fashions.
The second trick is a very useful skill. The beauty of a skill is it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. It’s the ability to look at the chaos, organize it into a fashion that makes sense to you, and store the organized pieces for later. It’s like being a sculptor. Take a block of stone, wood, or clay and remove the pieces that don’t belong in the composition. The skill is the ability to manage information. The skill to find the gold hidden deep within the rabbit hole and then establish order from chaos.
As you can see, rabbit holes can be a writer’s friend and a valuable tool in the writer’s toolbox. Writing is tough. Any tools we acquire to help us over the hills and humps that stand in our way are more valuable than gold. Because, in the end, the most important thing in writing is writing that next word and building our stories one word at a time, brick by brick.
The moral of the story.
Find what works for you.
Find what brings you joy in doing creative things.
Do those things.