I’ve been working my way, slowly, through Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. One of her essays about “composting” struck a particular chord.
Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
Despite the grossness of this metaphor, I find it quite apt.
I often think of this process as “percolating”, although for me, it’s often less about sifting through my own experiences than it is about giving a story the time it needs to grow into itself. The first draft is almost always weak — the tea hasn’t steeped enough yet. I find that I have to step away and leave the story to do its own work, unwatched, on its own. Sometimes this takes a few days, sometimes weeks, sometimes even longer. I have stories that have been percolating for years.
As Goldberg says, it takes time. And also, just because it doesn’t look like work doesn’t mean it isn’t. Not working on a piece can be an active way of working on it. Sometimes the process of thinking about writing is just as valuable as the actual act of writing.