(I lifted this drawing from the website of author Esther A. Lombardi, who has some great tips to beat writer's block here.)
The creative writing process is built on countless choices among infinite options.
Every time we writers lay fingers to keyboard, we are embarking on a journey, and we're taking you along for the ride. Most times we know where we're going and can get there pretty efficiently. Other times, we get a little lost along the way, circle around the destination several times, and sometimes require a little desk-side assistance from our friends in the copy editing department to reach our goal in the time and space allotted and with as few dented fenders and dangling modifiers as possible.
The directions for today's road trip came from an e-mail I received last week from a reader who asked simply, "Don't you ever run out of things to write about?" Being the glass-half-full guy I am, I chose to imagine that this was a compliment and a request for guidance rather than a slam about the wildly different roads this column travels. (Hey, it's my column; I'll interpret as I see fit.)
The answer is, in a word, no.
When I sit down to write this column, I have a pretty open window to decide what to talk about. I am, after all, the editor of this website (as I am of National DRAGSTER), and while there are those above me on the corporate masthead who theoretically could veto a topic, they typically don't. In exchange, I keep things PC and PG.
I don't pretend to be someone who can teach you how to write (nor is that the purpose of this column), but maybe it can help those of you who have to write find ways to get the job done. (I find delightfully ironic the timing of this preplanned topic because I just edited and then posted master linguist Bob Wilber's Team CSK blog in which even he speaks of a lack of inspiration to begin his pre-event press releases and before that Hillary Will's latest entry, in which she also confesses to a case of writer's block.)
Writing can be very challenging, and I’ll be the first to admit that those of us who can do it with relative ease (or at least make it look that way) sometimes take that for granted. I was fortunate to discover very early in my life (junior high) that I liked to write and that I could do it with a fair degree of skill, but that's just me. I don't have to stop (very often) to check the spelling of words or how to punctuate a sentence. It's just a very fortunate gift. Others of you were born with a wrench in your hand and blueprints in your brain that allow you to create wonderful things that run on more than ink and paper. It's just who we are and what we do.
To stretch the metaphor a little further, imagine being a neophyte car builder and having a box of chassis tubes dumped on the floor in front of you with no instructions. Sure, you could probably figure out that the longer ones ran the length of the car and that the bent tubes formed corners of some sort, but after that it's anyone's guess what the rest of the parts are for let alone how to assemble them. Such might be the case for those tasked with creative writing. You have all the words and ideas scattered around and no way to organize them.
Writing racing coverage is one thing because you're working from a pretty definable set of facts -- who won, who they beat, what they ran, etc. -– but once you step into the realm of so-called creative writing, such as is required for this column, all bets are off.
Typically, you can write about three things: things you know about; things you don't know about but can research; and your opinions/feelings. It's when you deal with the last that you really have, as the lead sentence above (cribbed from an L.A. Times article by Jay A. Fernandez) indicates, infinite options. Every paragraph topic, every sentence, every word choice can take readers down a different road.
Again, it's kind of like the options that a car builder has. You can build a Ford-powered Mustang if you’re a Ford guy, or you can do some research and find out how to stick your Boss 429 into a Camaro, or you can just go wild and build something that just speaks to you. If you have an infinite budget, you start with a blank slate (and a blank check) and have at it; or you start with what you have on hand and make the most of it, calling on your experience and imagination.
Pretty much every week for the last 20 or so years, I've written the Staging Light column for National DRAGSTER, which is a multiuse column that can be used to convey NHRA's stance on a particular topic, to recap in flowery terms the past weekend's racing, to discuss the contents of the current issue, or to share my thoughts and emotions. I won’t say I never have writer's block for a short period, but eventually something flows out of my fingers and onto the screen, and, most of the times, it makes sense. As the old saying goes, "Practice makes perfect." You screw in enough spark plugs in your lifetime, and pretty soon you can do it blindfolded and wearing boxing gloves.
But what if you don't even know what you want to write about?
I can give you 1,000 words on pretty much any subject and deliver the payload quickly and, without counting, pretty much on the count, give or take a dozen words (words being not just building blocks for us journalist types but also devices of measurement). A lot of that, of course, is the experience of sitting down every day for the last 25 years with the job of producing stories, but for those of us who enjoy the creative writing as much if not more than the who, what, where, when, and why that is the meat and potatoes of race coverage, it's because we constantly have our antennae up looking for new subject material.
We seek and find inspiration everywhere. I read the newspaper (the real kind, where fold management and ink-stained fingertips mark the expert readers) front to back every day, including the comics, noting how the different writers cover all sorts of topics, filing away in a mental cookie jar leads that worked, well-turned phrases, and other journalistic sleights of hand. I think about my next topics while waiting for sleep to take me and while waiting for the morning's shower to take sleep from me. We frequent smart-ass websites like The Onion and can quote humorist Dave Barry chapter and verse.
I'd imagine that, in the mechanic's or car builder's parallel universe, they stop as they walk down the street to examine someone's tricked-out ride or spend hours in the pits or at car shows memorizing, theorizing, and Imagineering as they cruise from car to car.
When that light bulb goes off over their head, it's probably in the shape of a welding torch.
Spelling and grammar aside, creative writing is nothing more than transferring your thoughts and experiences from your brain to your fingertips. We used to tell writer's-blocked rookie scribes here that the easiest way to get a story started is to imagine that you were telling your best friend about what had happened at the race. What would you tell him or her? What excited you? What was important about the day? In what order would you tell it? Once you get that going, it's a matter of organizing it and perfecting your tale.
I'd imagine that if I someone were to tell me how to construct the basic shape of a race car chassis, I could then figure out where most of the remaining tubing went. It might not be George Barris-pretty or Grant Downing-safe, but it would probably look a lot like a car, and there's no reason that, following my guidelines, you couldn't be the next one taking us for a ride in your shiny new story. Start creating!