Sunday, February 08, 2009

Diving Off the Boat

Think of writing this way: every time you pick up your pen or begin typing away at your computer, you are preparing to dive.

You’re not pulling on snorkel gear, or hauling a heavy oxygen tank over your shoulders, or stepping into a pressure-sealed suit, but you’re still preparing to dive.

And like every other diver, you have to learn how to flip backwards off the side of the boat into the water and plunge alone beneath the surface to do your work.

One of the greatest gifts of diving is this alone-time, which begins the moment you’re under water and nobody else can see what you’re doing.

You are completely alone, free to explore, to go in whatever direction you choose, even if it looks like a dead-end. With only your thoughts and the sound of your heart to keep you company, you can search the deep for the discoveries that you'll want to carry back to the boat for others to enjoy.

From the deck of the boat, your shipmates may be able to see air bubbles or an occasional ripple if you decide to stay near the surface that day.

But beneath the surface your actions are hidden from view, and you can dive into your imagination without interruption, except for the occasional shark that might swim too close, or the unexpected tug from the person holding the oxygen line signaling that your time is almost up.

Then, you resurface to breathe, to get more oxygen, and to re-orient yourself before going back over the side or deciding to call it a day.

Even though each of us dives alone, we have a team on-board to help us get into the water each day. Someone who makes sure our oxygen tank is full and the line is clear. Someone who steers the boat while we’re busy diving.

Each of us have shipmates--friends, family, sometimes even strangers--who help us dive.

Editors and agents are shipmates, too, and some of them can help us dive further and deeper than we might dive on our own.

But you have to be careful who you invite aboard your ship.

Because diving’s kind of tricky.

You need nurturing and support when you dive, especially during those early, exploratory dives when mistakes and confusion are common.

A nurturing, supportive shipmate gives you the freedom to dive where you need to dive and encourages you to explore the world in the way that you need to explore it. A critical shipmate only tangles the lines, preventing you from going where you need to go... offering his or her own plan or view of the world in place of your own.

When asking someone--an editor, an agent, a teacher, even a member of your writing workshop--to serve as one of your shipmates, you might want to find out before asking them for help if they believe in nurturing and supporting... or criticizing and advising.

That’s because the process of diving--the time you spend underwater, and the process of going down and coming back up again, often empty-handed--requires a great deal of nurturing and support.

Only after you come up from the deep with a full basket--your first or second or third draft in hand--is it time to ask for criticism or advice.

Some shipmates understand this process of alone-time as crucial to successful diving, while others are more interested in the final product (and want a hand in shaping the product) rather than in the process of discovery.

That’s fine--there's a time for seeking out and accepting criticism and advice--but these critics should be kept on the dock, waiting for the ship’s return, not on-board, in positions that can ultimately undermine the diver’s confidence and joy in the process.

For more thoughts on discovery and the creative process, visit:

And for more advice on the writing process, check out this site listing the Top 100 Creative Writing blogs:

(Note: If you scroll down, you'll notice Wordswimmer included among them.)


Jack said...

Good reflections in here, Bruce. Made me think of who all was in my "surface crew," from my writing friends, to to those I simply share a long walk with every day and bounce my thoughts off.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Jack. You've been on the boat ever since VC, and it's good to know you're there... in case I run into unexpectedly rough water.