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The Elemental

by John Caruso

The ancient alchemists sought to change base metals into gold, explain life, and discover the secrets of immortality. Alchemists worked with one foot planted in science and the other in the quasi-religious.

This sounds suspiciously like writing. Substitute “writers” for “alchemists” and “words” for “metals,” and I’d say you have a pretty fair description of what we try to accomplish and how we go about it. We try to convert base words into literary gold. We try to explain the world, communicate themes and philosophies, connect on a visceral level. And what is a published work but a slice of immortality? To work toward a complete, effective piece, we combine cold, technical aspects with sizzling spiritualness in the correct proportion. The writer who concentrates only on grammar, syntax, and precise definition will produce work that is sterile, soulless. Conversely, the writer who’s all fervor with no structure produces work that rivals the forbidden speech of mad prophets.

So where does one start? Like the alchemists of old, we begin with the elemental: we write. This may sound hackneyed and obvious, but it takes an existential leap of faith before we can honestly embrace this directive as truth. Of all the writing advice I have ever received or imparted, this is the purest. What makes us writers is WRITING. Not thinking about it. Not reading about it. Not fantasizing about it. We need to sit down, put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), and just write. Free write. Journal. Compose a story. Create a novel. Write. This is the only way we will learn, the only way we will improve.

By writing, we get a feel for language. We begin to develop an ear for what sounds “correct.” When we write, we give ourselves the opportunity to apply concepts learned from workshops, seminars, books, columns, and coffee-fueled brainstorming sessions. The more we write, the more confidence we gain. With confidence comes experimentation, which leads to discovery.

Will we create gold every time we set out? No. Should we strive to create gold each time? Of course. The act of writing is wonderful and frustrating, transcendent and mundane, and it is ours to explore.

With each installment of The Fiction Forum, Word Alchemy will examine different ways writers can explore the process of writing. Sometimes the information will be technical, informative. Other times, it may be abstract, conceptual. Ultimately, however, the goal is to help writers create.

But for the moment, remember the elemental: we cannot create if we don’t begin. Now go scribble something.

© 2002 by John Caruso

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