by Meg Dowell
When you’re a writer, people–writers and non-writers alike–ask you a lot of questions.
They ask you where your ideas come from. How you get so much writing done in a day (or why you don’t). If you think you’ll ever be as successful as [insert their favorite author here].
For me, the hardest question to answer–possibly the most terrifying question anyone has ever asked me–has nothing to do with my ideas. I have a few theories about those.
It has nothing to do with whether or not I really want to be a writer when I grow up. I have always known that. I have never minded that my ambition seems childish and impossible to some.
It’s a question I should have seen coming, but didn’t. A question that I should have been able to construct an answer for, but couldn’t.
The question is this: “How do you put your ideas into words?”
A seemingly harmless question, right? How do I take an idea and iron it out and make all these pretty words appear on a page.
I guess I … well, first I …
The first time this question came to me, I realized I did not have an answer.
In a way, breaking down how I write a story would mean paying more attention to every single detail of my own…so much so that the magic, the mystery, might disappear.
But I did try to think about it. Only to come to the conclusion that when I write something, so much of my brain is engaged in the process that I will never fully be able to comprehend it in its entirety.
I realized that I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, in control of my words.
That’s a scary thought, for someone like me.
Sometimes I enter a flow state and write a few thousand words without stopping to let my mind take a breath, and when I finally do and skim over a few lines of what I’ve just written, I find myself asking my own question: How did I write that?
There is no answer. Instead I must ask a follow-up question: Can I do it again?
Answering questions is just a part of being a mentor, a literary role model, if you will (I’m not saying I am one; I’m just generalizing here). People become fascinated by the way you express thoughts and they want to believe there is some magical formula for making it happen.
There isn’t. But being asked those kinds of questions makes you think, makes you view the process of writing in a completely different way.
It’s the questions you cannot answer that drive you to seek answers out. Force you to dedicate your life (or at least, a healthy portion of it) to helping others find the answers, too.
I cannot explain it. I cannot tell you my exact process for transforming an idea into a series of words and sentences and stories on a page. I think it is much more complicated than sitting down and writing until something comes to form. At least deeper down where you cannot reach.
What I can do is show you the value of your ideas, and help you form your own processes, and guide you into establishing your own rhythm, so that you can pick out those ideas most meaningful to you, and somehow, put them into your own words.
I don’t have all the answers. But I do know a thing or two about how to ask the right questions.
Meg Dowell is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.
Love this. I try not to think how the words flow, they just do. Now, whether or not they are “beautiful” depends on the editing phase for me. After my initial readers carve up my first (actually, usually second or third) draft and tell me I need to say things differently. 🙂
Great post! Thanks for sharing 🙂
As of yet, I have never been asked this question, and had never thought about it. This post made me think about it. Like you, I have no answer. Once I get started, sometimes it just flows. Other times I have to work at it. Thanks for sharing.
I set down every morning to write. Sometimes it is a struggle, sometimes I stop wonder how those words got there.
Honestly, my ideas come from inside. I can’t tell you where from.
Thanks for sharing (good to know I’m not alone!
Interesting question, and like lovesiamese, I’ve never been asked it. I don’t think it’s something that can be explained, but I think it’s just how our minds work. I’m sure musicians are more sensitive to sounds than the average person, and an artist sees shapes and colors the average person will miss. Our talent happens to be crafting stories with words. We probably view stories differently than the average person does, so for us, the process is as natural as breathing.
That’s my guess anyway. 🙂
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The answer is “It’s Complicated!” 🙂 Wow! That is a scary question and like someone else said, I don’t question it. When they’re coming they’re coming. To question that can disturb my writing balance. Just enjoy the ride.
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Excellent post. Thinking back over my own writing, I can’t recall ever being asked this question. I think many people assume that if you have an idea it automatically appears with words to bring it into reality. When I look back on my writings from past years, I have at times asked myself where I got those words. If the same ideas popped into my head now, I am quite sure I would not use the same words to bring the idea to life. Although I can’t come up with a specific explanation, I think there are many contributing factors; recent books I have read, questions which occasionally appear in my head without explanation (I call them life’s mysteries), people I have recently met, struggles others face, my own struggles in many areas, my family and social history and probably many other factors. Thanks for turning loose this question for the rest of us to ponder.
Sometimes, I think it’s me…other times, I think it’s my characters. Most of the time, I have to rewrite and revise so much that I’m not sure whose words I end up with! 🙂
It’s a difficult thing to explain to someone. The ideas come out of my mind and flow to my hand and end up typed on screen. That’s the best way I could describe it.
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A valid question to be sure but it’s like asking someone: ‘how do you move your arm?” The aim of writing is to move what’s in your mind into your fingers. It comes through practice and only practice. For some it’s easier than for others. Some do it well; others not so much. But if you want the quick answer… It’s magic.
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I agree with you. Most of the writing I do especially when I was younger flowed from a subconscious state than a focused effort on writing to sound.
I think knowing the answer is scarier than the question. When I finish a book, or even a chapter that I particularly like within a book, I don’t care how the sausage was made, I’m just happy that it tastes good. I like to think that the ability to put thoughts into words is innate or even from a higher power.
Someone was just asking me this the other day: “How do you make yourself sit down and write five pages a day? That sounds awful!” Being his exact phrasing.
I, too, was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer. The best I could do was, “Um….I’d go mad if I didn’t, so I do?” Because yeah, I have no idea how that actually works or happens. I just do.
awesome hook. and i am, not easily hooked. and then, delivered. i felt no, “eh, i knew that, ho hum” after reading…
a great insight, the most fundamental i would say. with the only hesitation being— using the word fundamental. thanks -J
and just by way of adding something. i would say, as long as the writer is honest. how can they, run out of things to say? or not-know, how to write them? when it has been done. so, why does this happen? when are we at a lose for words? (cause i think that is what it is) for myself, it is only when i try to understand them, hold them, mold them. i do all these things of course when i am writing. but i do-not do them, they happen. i guess this would be the honesty thing. honesty is not always instantaneous either, so it can be confusing. perhaps, this is writing. honest confusion…. only my 2 cents, of course. thanks so much Ryan
One of the most relatable posts I have ever seen..! That process, when ideas of the mind are translated into words, is truly magical and indescribable..! The frenzy, the excitement, the uninterrupted flow… It’s a miracle indeed..! Great post.. Thanks a lot for sharing.. 🙂 😀
Good question! I’ve never been asked that question and to be honest I wouldn’t have a clear, concise answer to give anyone if someone asked me this. Now you got me thinking about a process that most people don’t really give much thought to, because you just do it. The process of transposing thoughts into words that come to life is truly a subconscious phenomenon. The best way to explain how it works, is whatever is playing in your mind before the words come out (whether conscious or subconscious thoughts) is what will come out on the page or screen. Whatever music I’m listening to, current mood, the character’s voice play a hand in helping me come up with the words to express a scene.
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Great post. Explained so nicely about a process that cannot be explained.
I to know how hard it is to put thoughts to words. I have a story in my head, I know where I want it to go and how each scene is to unfold, but when I go to write it I get a blank. Suddenly, it becomes very difficult. As for ideas, well they can come from anywhere. A current story I’m writing was sparked by a movie I watched over a year ago as well–I think–as a silly story idea that I’d come up with years later. The result? A story that takes the traditional Knight/Dragon concept and turns it on its head.
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I have never been asked this question and had never thought about it, but she answers it beautifully. My favorite line is, “Sometimes I enter a flow state and write a few thousand words without stopping to let my mind take a breath […]” I love when that happens!
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When asked that question, I say that I just listen to the voices in my head and write down what they tell me. It’s pretty much the truth. 😀
Great post. I’ve never been asked how I put my ideas into words, which is very different from where I get my ideas, something I’ve definitely been asked. (Easy to answer. Although they are from a great many sources, I can readily trace them back.)
Since words–wordings–are a painstaking, arduous process for me in fiction (transcription from feelings and images), I have a pretty good idea how I put my ideas into words. I expect that people who process wording quickly–bing, they’re just there in the brain, ready to pull out–have a tougher time answering/describing how they did it. Just a theory I have based on my experience with teaching. I see this phenomenon in the kids I teach, especially in math. The most horrific instruction for them is “Show your work.” They process too fast to be able to trace how they did it and write it out in steps, which is why I teach them to “catch their thinking.” It’s common to the upper elementary kids, but kids whose brains process very quickly have more of a problem with this.
Awesome post! I feel similar in not really knowing how I write until I am doing it, but I h e nailed done a process. Rough drafts are whatever comes to mind, and each revision pass focuses on something different (major problems, descriptions, line edits, proofread).