The Art of Wandering for Writers, Part I

Getting lost as a writer can lead to fresh insight.

Posted May 18, 2012

When you get lost, you often find great surprises.

Note: This text is adapted and rearranged from a chapter in The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish 2008)

1. Get Lost
When writers ask me for tips about first drafts, I tell them to get lost. In their drafting, that is.

Starting a fresh draft is one of the most exhilarating – and excruciating – parts of writing.

The uncertainty drives some writers crazy. But uncertainty may mean you’re on the right path. Otherwise, you may be writing what you already know and, thus, what your readers already know, too.

As a writer, you want to be able to trust your faculties, to discover your innate traveling tools, to be so versatile in your writing that you learn how to navigate tricky terrain and find your way out of dense thickets. You want, in short, the ability to draft and get lost with confidence.

2. The Stigma
We have a stigma about getting lost. Some people view it as a sign of weakness. Parents dread the thought of their children getting lost. Some of our religions and fables teach us the hazards of straying from the path. One definition of wander is, after all, “to deviate in conduct or belief; to err; go astray.” Rooted in wind, to “wander” sounds like being “wanton,” to have no discipline. Yet, there is a discipline and an art to being able to wander well as writers.

If we fear getting lost, we might draft like an overscheduled tourist. Reading a rushed draft can feel like taking an hour-long tour that shuttles you through Manhattan’s highlights. True, staying safely on subject while drafting can be helpful for report makers and journalists and blog writers but hazardous for novelists, poets, or creative nonfiction writers.

Here’s the deal: We often remember surprises, novelty, revelation, and we encounter such things more often when taking time to stray.  

Poet and translator Andrew Schelling of Naropa University once told me what he viewed as the core distinctions between touring and journeying. When we tour, he said, we accumulate and take from a culture and return with more stuff—plastic knickknacks, ashtrays painted with “Tahiti is Smokin’,” and jewelry we’ll never wear once back in the States. When we journey, we open ourselves up to the place and to the moment and perhaps return transformed or at least slightly different. We have a fresh perspective and stronger wits instead of more trinkets and photographs.

3. Slow Draft
So it can be with how we draft. Slow down. Get lost. Drafting is a time for journeying, for uncovering your story’s unexpected plot twists, for delving more deeply into an image that keeps bugging your imagination, for discovering a character’s disturbing blemish. When you get lost in your drafting, you often realize your real subject, something you wouldn’t have found had you stuck with your original writing “plan.”

When drafting, I don’t care how I look because I’m the only one watching: I overwrite, digress, strike the wrong chord with a word choice. I know later I must return and clean up, but without this unbridled process I wouldn’t be able to start anywhere. I’d be stuck with frozen fingers, worrying what and how I should write.

“Slow drafting’ can be a subversive act that resists our speed-driven culture. “Slow drafting” calms the analytical, taskmaster mind and awakens the fertile, intuitive reservoir of images stored in our embodied imagination.

When we write without concern for speed and efficiency, we also may sharpen our wits and hone our navigating skills for the next time we write. Not that writing becomes any easier with each trip. But perhaps the more we challenge ourselves as we draft, the more versatile we will become and more able to move toward more difficult writing. And then we must be avid and adept rewriters and editors.

We become trackers, sojourners, peregrinators. Not tourists.

(Part II offers specific tips for how to draft with a wandering state of mind. Hit the subscribe button to the right to stay updated on this and other Tracking Wonder updates.)

What do you think?

Am I off-track here? Does this kind of writing lead to self-indulgent messes that you can do nothing with? Or are you wanderer-drafters, too? Share your tips, stories, and opinions here.

See you in the woods,

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