We had a guest in poetry class today: Helena Mesa, a Cuban-American poet who talked to us about her writing process, her poems, and the nuts and bolts of poetry writing. It’s always fascinating to hear someone talk about her work, even if you’re not super familiar with it.
Something that Ms. Helena said that resounded with me was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sometimes I write lines that are just to get me to the next line; they’re scaffolding to take me to the next level.”
The moment she said that, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I can’t even begin to count the number of times when I’ve been stuck on one of my novels and had to force myself to keep writing any old crap just to get past that rough place and on to what actually needs to happen.
It’s literally painful to write that “scaffolding,” and it’s not pretty, but it has to happen.
Think about it. I’m sure we’ve all seen a construction site at some point. The construction crew needs the scaffolding to be able to build the building higher than eye level, so they erect this crappy-looking ladder system that gives them the height they need. It stays there until the building is built, and then the construction crew tears the scaffolding down.
What have we learned about scaffolding? It’s ugly, but it’s necessary and it gets the job done. And now we come to the writing parallel.
We all get stuck sometimes. It feels like the next words just won’t come, no matter how hard you try. What you do come up with is utter crap, and you stab the Backspace button so many times that it gets a dent in the middle and your finger starts hurting.
If you are well and truly stuck, then you have to write the crap.
There’s a gap between the point you’re at and the scene after this one, that scene that you know you can write if you can just get to it. So you write the scene in the middle, and it’s awful, but that’s okay.
Once you’ve written through that rough point, you keep coming. Your heart rate returns to normal. You stop grimacing. Everything’s fine and you made it through.
When your “building” – your novel, short story, poem, essay, whatever – is finished, then you can go back and start dealing with all the ugly scaffolding that you needed while you were building. You might be able to rebuild it so it’s an integral part of the work, or you might just tear it out. Either way, it doesn’t matter. It did its purpose.