When I was about ten years old, my father took my sister and me to the NRA sponsored Junior Rifle Club where we learned to shoot .22 rifles. I earned almost all the badges, stopping short of total accuracy in a standing position. The first thing we had to do each week was to sight in our rifles. I don’t recall exactly how we did this, but the point was to adjust the sights on the rifle by a few microns one way or another until we could actually hit what we aimed at. This involved shooting several rounds from a stable position until a consistently accurate pattern emerged.
Sometimes writing a story (or any other focused and purposeful piece) is something like that. Sometimes you may not even realize that you are “sighting in a story.”
Such was my experience yesterday. Through unfortunate timing, we learned of the death of a dear friend via voice mail, and later by e-mail. The event was not a surprise, but still a shock. As I began composing e-mails to notify our family, and then a few of my own close friends, a message began to emerge. I considered copying our friend’s family on the last one two, but that didn’t seem right. They deserved some words of their own.
By the time I got around to composing a few comforting paragraphs specifically for the family, I had settled into the process. The core purpose and message were clear. The rest fell into place around it, guided by a picture I selected to enhance the point. Although it still took some time, I don’t think I could have written what I ultimately did without the warm-up of the earlier versions to others. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, they allowed me to “sight in” the message that mattered most.
I have not shot a gun since before I graduated from high school, and hadn’t thought of the “sighting in” process for as long. It simply came to me as I reflected back on the experience of writing that piece. Other terms may be even more appropriate. “Nibbling around the edges” would work. It could also be likened to Michaelangelo’s description of carving a marble statue: “I look at the block of marble, see the image inside, and chip away everything that isn’t part of that image.”
I often toss out a few drafts before I settle into a story. Just as you can’t run at ultimate speed when you first hit the road, your words won’t generally flow as smoothly when you first reach for pen or keyboard. Sometimes it may take days or weeks to warm up to a big story. Don’t let that phase you. Hang in there, stretch and warm up by doing freewriting, writing e-mail or letters (just don’t let them crowd out your “real” writing!) or simply launching into a draft that may well be tossed. You’ll find that core story, and just the right words to tell it.
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal