Writer’s Diary #22: Crafting “Stone by Stone”

One of the hardest parts of writing, or maybe everything is hard, is starting something new. The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the difficulty. If a chapter can be anything, then what is it? No. I mean, what is it exactly? What’s the order? What comes first? Where does the introduction go? What is the next bit? What comes at the end? The problem is that you can do a lot, but a chapter is not finished until it is.

Consider the first chapter, which I will start again tomorrow. I wrote the first draft a year ago and planned it on a large seminar table. The structure is there, but not finished.

My first instinct is to read it all, try to figure out the structure, write it out, make a plan, and then implement the plan and see where it goes from there. But experience tells me it’s going to be slow, with a lot of procrastination, repetition, and trying to work out the point.

I’m not going to try to plan it or figure it out, instead I’m going to work with what’s there and let the structure emerge.

Perhaps a metaphor will help.

Think of a chapter as a stone wall.

A stonemason knows their material, they know the shape of the wall they’re trying to build; they know its dimensions and all that. But to actually build the wall, they have to build it. That’s the work. The work (and the skill) is in choosing from the stones that are available, and putting them all together in a way that works. The trick is in the craft of how the wall emerges. If the wall is built well, it is because the stones fit. If they fit, it’s because of the iterative, skilled work of making them fit.

I think that’s how walls are built, mind you. I only know a little, from watching a basement wall being repaired.

But this diary is about writing. How does the metaphor fit? To work on this chapter, I know a few things. It’s subject (fieldwork) and topic (field notes), and the argument is that research is improvisational. With that in mind, I need to spend a few weeks editing what I’ve done for this section to see how the structure emerges.

It is through working and reworking and making things fit that the structure will emerge.

This way of working is not fast or efficient per se. But it’s the work. The work is the revision, and through the revision the order is found.…