Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. You can connect with Richa through her website (http://www.snugglewithpicturebooks.com), or drop her an email (email@example.com).
What’s Wine Got to Do with It!
By Richa Jha
Our writings make fascinating journeys. Sometimes, the transformation from how they began to what they end up could be as stark as an awkward frogling metamorphosing into a preened capuchin! I see this journey as a sum of parts, where each phase is crucial to getting a finely sculpted piece of work out there.
The Pitcher Plant (or the good ol’ notepad phase): Have you observed the effortlessness with which a Pitcher Plant traps its prey? It’s a quick, snappy, and decisive movement, regardless of the type of insect that lands on its outer lobes. Moreover, the plant doesn’t go looking for its prey; it is they who come to it. That’s how I see the mind of a writer operating, be it when writing an article for a magazine, a short story, a picture book or a novel. Ideas rarely come to you when you go looking too hard; if they do, they feel contrived, or lacking in freshness and spontaneity. But they do strike you, unannounced, if you keep your senses open to the possibility of ideas. Generating them is more of a sensory exercise – a smell triggers a chain of thought, a sound shouts out more than you can hear, a sight brings back memories and reflections, or a story or a conversation throws open the fifty other ways to reframe that thought. Ideas are everywhere, as long as we keep our tentacles upped! You see a possibility, just seize it, grab it, trap it. Never mind that you may not need it now, or ever, but make it yours before it slips away.
And that’s where a trusty notepad comes in handy (or should I say it is an imperative?) But I have learnt it the hard way that it’s never been with me when I’ve needed it for the teeny weeny fraction of a second when for example, the first little rascal said something to the second little rascal. By the time I got to the tools of the trade, the moment had passed, the muse had decided to disperse and the words lay forgotten.
What does stick with me like my shadow, however, is my smart phone, which I have now begun putting to good use. I type out these sudden bursts of inspiration into my email (that is, compose an email to myself) – sometimes key words or ideas, or sometimes the first flow of sentences that come to mind. There have been times when I have even typed out a full first draft on them while waiting at my kids’ soccer lesson or the doctor’s lounge or wherever. Once home, I just need to cut and paste this matter from my email onto my laptop, and there, one part of my work is already done!
The Cauldron (or the hard work phase): The first part is always the easiest, of course. But once all kinds of fuzzy, inchoate, bizarre, outlandish, nutty or earth shattering ideas have been trapped into my system, comes the part where I let them gestate. Or slow cook. That’s why I call it my cauldron phase. This is where those thoughts brew and stew, and I let them be because I know they are not ready yet to be shaped into a ripe story. Or, if I am reasonably sure about a beginning, I start writing them down, without suppressing any of the strains of thoughts that the one main idea sprouts. And then I write like a maniac!
For me typically, this could last anywhere between a couple of months to a year for fiction (much less for literary pieces and magazine articles, though). It’s an interesting phase, because at any given time, there are at least five different story ideas that are cooking up in my mind, each teasing and tearing me in fifty different directions! I have found that I am at my most irritable, scatter-brained and snappiest worst when my mind’s a boiling cauldron. Which is pretty much all the time 🙂
Wine Barrel (or the grind ending-mill phase): Any writing needs time and space to grow, to mature. Care for unaged wine, any one?
A hurriedly written story will fail the test of time because the author will not have given adequate thought to the several possible ways in which the story could lead to its best possible resolution. By far the most important (and difficult) part of a picture book’s journey, for instance, happens in this phase. When I have written out several drafts of a story (I average at 20), I (invariably) get stuck with the ending of my best draft. Also, as an editor, I have found that most picture books that begin with a flourish and oodles of potential peter out into a flat whimper by the end.
There is a difference in the way churning happens in the cauldron and inside the wine barrel. Unlike in the cauldron where your mind is open to infinite possibilities of which way the characters can move, talk, behave, act, or fail and then succeed, by the time your story has been locked inside the barrel, its contents are sealed, the ingredients are already decided and pre-mixed – right down to pinning your character to the meanest possible problem. You are then left with the unenviable challenge of getting the best resolution of the crisis for that particular character. That’s how wine ages too. And that comes only with time.
Let the conflict play on in your mind for days, months, even years, until you feel you’ve hit upon the best twist you can give to your story’s end. If it means going right back to tweak the beginning, do so. You’ll feel it in your gut the moment all the pieces of the jigsaw fit it perfectly! Kudos! Make way for the wine taster now, please!
It’s hardly a smooth sail, this writing journey. But easy treks, much like the low hanging fruits, are never half as fulfilling as one that has weathered you inside out. By the end of any piece of writing, if you feel you have grown and gained, you’ve got a winner in your hand. And it’s worth every bit of those sleepless star-gazing nights during the adventure trail.
Richa Jha is a writer based out of Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of a picture book and editor of an anthology of short stories. Two of her picture books are slated for release later this year in India. When not stirring the stew in the cauldron, she can be found snuggled with picture books or talking about them at http://snugglewithpicturebooks.com.