A Writer’s Compass
by Nick Jaina
October 2, 2018
When we write we are exploring an unmapped terrain. Our only job is to understand.
Every step we take is more information. There is no wrong step. If we walk north, we find out how far it is to that scraggly tree and if we have to cross any streams along the way. If we walk south, we find out how far away the cliff's edge is and if there are any berries left to pick. Any direction and its opposite is equally valid.
This is the situation we face when we sit down to write on a blank screen or piece of paper. We usually look at this situation and are afraid that we will start off in the wrong direction. We think we have to figure everything out before we even write the first word.
But, again, we are in wholly unmapped terrain. Mistakes are not to be avoided, they are to be embraced. We have no reason to beat ourselves up if we walk for a while and end up at a dead end. We should be happy, because now we have filled this section in on our map. Even if that section says, Dead End. We are grateful when we find a water source, or when we find a good place to set up our tent away from the wind. If we find a place where a hornet's nest is, we resolve to not go traipsing around near it. All of it is valuable information that helps us fill in our map.
Now, when we are mapping the inner terrain while writing, our directions are not north/south/east/west. So, I have designed a simple compass to help guide us in our quest. You can use this compass at the beginning of your writing session, or when you get stuck, or at any time.
Let's say you saw something in your day that seemed profound to you. A dead deer by the side of the road. Then later when you sit down to write, you want to write about that deer. You get a couple seconds in and you hit that barrier that every writer hits, where you feel too sad about it, or you feel it is too mundane, or you feel that it is too big to write about. And you stop. And you feel bad because you can't write about all the feelings you felt when you drove past the dead deer on the road.
In moments like that, try referring to this compass. If you feel stuck, just set out in any direction. Engage with the truth. Write about what you believe, what you love. If that is too difficult, go the exact opposite way and write about what you don't believe, what you absolutely hate. Or go to one side and write about the most specific thing you can. Write about the fly on the eyelid of the carcass, how it was wringing its hands in delight at landing on such an enormous buffet. Or go the opposite direction and write about something bigger than the specific deer, bigger than your own life. Write about how deer have symbolized throughout storytelling that alluring aspect of wilderness that leads warriors on a great adventure, how there are so many stories about hunters with bows shooting and only wounding deer, chasing the wounded deer deeper into the forest, not finding that deer, but finding a greater adventure.
Any direction you go is more information. We are mapping an unknown terrain. The terrain is inside of you. No one has ever explored it before. What a great adventure to embark upon.