by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
“The Idea” shows up inside my head like a gift on Christmas morning, delivered with such immediacy it leaves me breathless—Wile E. Coyote’s nemesis couldn’t have dropped a more potent anvil on my head. It is perfect. So perfect. I want to inspect all its fingers and toes to be sure it’s real. If I’m lucky enough to receive it during waking hours, I carry it with great care, taking small, non-jolting steps, for it’s made of something like smoke and butterfly tears and can flee at the first tremor, to the writing desk.
I open the page. I uncap the pen. I begin to set it down in tiny ribbons of ink that feel a little bit like blood, in a good way—the way it must have felt when barbers of old bled the demons out of your veins, when the crimson pooling in a ceramic bowl promised redemption, health, freedom.
An alarming thing happens.
A puny, sickly, half-formed version of this beautiful creature burps out onto the page, sticky and weak and so much less than I hoped that I’m half-ashamed, half-terrified of what I’ve created. But it’s mine. I am its mother and I will have to nurture it, or usher it back to the void.
I am a novelist, primarily. I used to write short stories—the emphasis on my MFA program was certainly the story, for practical reasons. And then, suddenly one day, I stopped writing them. I realized they had been sprints for the marathon of novel writing, flexing and pushing my writing centers toward those long, cold journeys into the heart of a story, offering transformation.
Over the years I’ve learned that the early idea for a novel is always this malformed creation; things worth writing do not come out in whole cloth, fully formed. They get there in stages, much like children, developing with proper attention, sweat and time.
The only way I have learned to tolerate this first, strange, half-formed stage of the writing process, is to practice, through countless revisions, the equally fascinating process of seeing The Idea take shape, thickening, vivifying, with work and commitment and love. Sometimes it requires time away so that I can come back to it with objective eyes. Sometimes it needs the feedback of others (most of the time), and other times, it just needs a steady slogging, a forward persistence.
I have eternal empathy for those writers who come to me in classes, and as editing clients, crying about how frustrated they are with their first, even second or third, half-hearted attempts. And the best advice, the only advice, worth giving is simply: revise, revise, revise. Pump it full of lyric steroids; imbue it with superheroic talents; hack away its crisp and unneeded edges until you have something that pulses with life, that resembles the perfection born in your mind, a promise of what you would be able to write if you just keep at it.