Imagine a dancer. She stumbles out of bed in the early dawn and takes a bus to the studio. She stretches her stiff body and shakes off the last of her sleepiness.
She performs some simple moves to loosen her joints, then, as she sweats, does something more complex. She checks herself in the mirror — no, my right knee needs to be raised higher here, what if I curved my left hand this way, that kick with the heel looks good.
Our dancer sketches and foxtrots, builds and breaks, before she discovers her dance. She finds her dance in the dancing.
We expect this. We wouldn’t expect her to walk into the studio, and swing out a new, fully formed sequence that’s perfectly composed, without doing any of the work beforehand.
But when it comes to writing, many more people expect to bang out a new, fully formed essay that’s perfectly composed, without any warm-up, experimentation, and revision.
Writing is messy. You might have a seed of an idea to start you off, even a few sentences you’ve already formed in your mind. But you can’t find the exact contours of your work without writing it out.
When I started this article, I had its main idea and the image of a dancer in my head, but I didn’t have the sentences you’ve just read. I had to discover them, just as I’m going to unearth the next ones by typing them out.
If you think you have to know everything that’s going to be on the page before the page is written, you’ll paralyze yourself before you can even get started. Instead, think of writing as thinking out loud, and let yourself dance.
Stretch your mind and loosen the words by writing a few sentences, even if they’re stiff and clumsy. Then try more complex moves, turn a sentence up instead of down, jig different ideas together, pirouette a paragraph left instead of right. Explore, revise, mine the pen for what’s inside.
And then, you’ll have found something. It might be exactly what you were looking for, it might be better or worse, it might even surprise you because you had no idea it was going to be there. But you find the words by doing the writing.
Dancer Taking a Bow (The Star) by Edgar Degas.