Think “blacksmith” and you’ll probably get an image in your mind of a burly man in a black apron hammering a fiery piece of metal on an anvil. Now think “wordsmith.” What do you see? An image may be harder to find, or you may see nothing at all. It’s all right. This isn’t a test and no one expects you to see anything, because there’s nothing to see. Wordsmithing is something that’s done in private without the familiar sights and sounds that blacksmithing conjures up. But I promise you, it takes a lot of burly strength of mind and imagination. It’s not for the weak or dainty writer, it’s a craft no less hard come by than forging iron into steel. It takes muscle and it takes heat, and it takes a lot of endurance.
In the past, my writing practice has been more like building a piece of furniture. I write a scene or a chapter and then work it until it’s right, and only then do I move on to the next scene—in carpentry you must make sure all your pieces are shaped evenly before you can fit them together. At the end, after all of the scenes and chapters have been nailed together and the continuity has been sanded smooth, I go back for the Big Edit. I’m used to this routine; it’s what comes naturally to me. But writing my memoirs is a different matter entirely. With A Polite Little Madness, I’m writing straight-shot through, no editing along the way, no tallying the word count, and no re-reading what I wrote the day before. When the rough draft is finished I’ll go back to the beginning with a bottle of Chianti and hone the emotional details—the pathos and the humor—that I only alluded to in the first write. This will take several sessions, and I expect to consume a fair amount of aspirin and Tagamet during this phase. Then I’ll start over once again and temper it by exchanging weak words with strong ones, and by removing cliché, schmatlz, and other unnecessary crap. Then comes the plunge into the cold water. The Big Edit. At last, the final read during which I rub everything to a high shine.
This is my plan, anyway.
I’ve no idea why I’m following this practice for this particular book. Probably, like anything I do, I’m simply following my instincts. One of the reasons I pay no attention to other writers’ rules is because I prefer to create my own sword, one that carries my personal stamp. This doesn’t mean I don’t take inspiration from master wordsmiths out there, I just don’t follow their routines. I prefer to create my own rules and techniques. As in blacksmithing, one must apprentice for a long time, reading great books, learning the elements of style, and picking up on tricks of the trade. But there comes a time when we must leave our apprenticeship behind and open our own forge, a place where we develop our own rules and put them into practice, building on what we’ve learned from the masters, not mimicking them. This takes confidence and faith is one’s craft. There are too many writers out there just mimicking their favorite authors. At some point we must find our own voice and our own style. Then we can hammer our personal stamp into the steel. Then, when another smith examines our work, they can say, “Yes, I know this particular styling. This is a work by _____.”
Writing about your own life is an excellent way to find your own voice, because to mimic someone else’s is to be dishonest with yourself and with your readers.