My earliest writing memory, at perhaps age nine, involves sitting at the kitchen table writing about bears.
The story was about a mama bear and two cubs during hibernation. The cubs go out to have fun and get in trouble, but mama bear saves them. They go back to the cave and sleep for the rest of the season. Nice story.
I might have ripped it off from somewhere.
My mom read it, handed it back and told me to revise. Make it better. She didn’t make any notations of her own, just told me to revise.
Later in life as I was reading a book for leisure, my aunt stopped me just before I turned the page.
“Take a moment,” she said, “Think about what might happen next. Imagine the events.”
I didn’t see it at the time, but I know now she was exercising my writing muscle, getting me to look ahead and imagine the story. She always told me I would be a writer, and she was helping me along.
Many such ocasions taught me about the craft of writing. Throughout the years I picked up several elements and components that go into crafting a good story. The casual observer may not recognize these components. While they might recognize that a story is off, they don’t know why.
They see the whole picture but fail to see the components.
Many writers, though, do see all of these components. Most schools – middle, high and college – teach them. They are the elements of story – plot, character, foreshadowing.
The trouble is that most writers don’t know how to use them all. We sit down to write and all of these components come rushing at us in a blur and we develop writer’s block.
We throw out idea after idea because we come from a formula culture. Our formula tells us that if we don’t have all the variables we can’t begin the work. If we don’t have all the elements of a story lined out from beginning, we can’t begin.
And so we don’t.
I know this because I am that writer. I want to get it right the first time. I don’t want to go back and redo it. My grandparents taught me that if you do it right the first time then you don’t have to do it over again.
But my grandparents’ adage doesn’t work in the world of creativity. The old axiom, “Measure twice, cut once” doesn’t apply when we’re working with abundant, limitless materials like creativity or words or stories.
Over the years I’ve developed a tool that both reminds me that perfection the first time isn’t necessary, and to allow me to get back to writing.
It’s a tool I use every time I sit down to write.
It’s a tool you can use, a tool that will allow you to get started without all the pieces and to come back and fill in those pieces later.
I call them filters.
I imagine each component of writing as a small circular see-through color. Similar to those little round and plastic primary color toys, that when you combine yellow and blue you get green.
Each element of story is a different filter, and I can use these filters together or separately as I need.
When I begin writing a story, I’m using my story and character filters. I only care about what the story is and who the characters are. Revision and symbolism and all the other stuff comes later.
At a different point in the story I might use the story filter by itself. I read the story through and ask myself if it follows logically.
Then I take that filter out and look through my character filter. Are they believable and real?
Later my grammar filter. And my comprehension filter. And still later my reader filter. And then all together, to make sure they work holistically.
I don’t own a complete list of filters. I’ve never taken the time to write them down, and I imagine they differ some from writer to writer. You’ll have to find your own filters.
Sometimes my filters change moment-by-moment.
When I began writing this piece I focused on story and reader. I wanted to build a story that connected you to me.
When I got to the paragraph about the tool I’ve developed I employed my suspense filter. I wanted to build a sense of suspense. I wanted you to want me to tell you what it is. I didn’t just jump right in. I drew it out.
I also ignored my spelling filter. I spelt a word wrong above, but I didn’t fix it. I know that I will catch it later with my spelling filter, so I don’t have to worry about it. (Did you see it? I left it in the final copy especially for you.)
Right now I’m concerned above all else with my comprehension filter. Am I concretely and comprehensively expressing what I need to express?
And, finally, I’m aware of the distance from which I’m viewing my writing.
First draft is a close distance. I’ll see about 60% of what I need through my comprehension filter at this distance. I’ll need to back up and look at it from a greater distance to get another 30%. (These numbers only add up to 90% because no writer can see her writing completely unbiased.)
You might ask how I can do this as I write. How do I hold it all in my head?
It’s actually much easier than it sounds because – truth be told – it’s not about the filters. You’re already using filters. We all are. We’re just trying to look at all of them. All. At. Once.
The idea of filters gives us permission to ignore some of them. It gives us the power to acknowledge the filter, to set it down on the desk and say, “I’ll use you later. For now, I’m going to use this other filter. Your time will come.”
That’s all it is; shifting power away from the rules and elements of writing to the writer herself. You have the power yourself. Grasp hold of it.
Now go and sit at your desk, but before you begin writing — look to your right. See them? Those are your filters. They are sitting there on the desk awaiting your command.
Which will you choose first?