Climbing a Tree, Uncovering a Duck: Writers on Writing

June 8, 2010 | 12 books mentioned 13 5 min read

In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree. You’re on one branch, she said, and it’s wobbly. You don’t like it, it makes you uncomfortable—if not totally freaked out. Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant. Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully. You don’t want to fall out of the tree, do you?

A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward. I’d been working and working on a certain section until—exhale—something changed. It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or—wait—is that an elbow…or…her teeth?) as I try to hold back tears. This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel. I couldn’t see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips. I didn’t stop, though—I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this. When I was done, my novel did feel better. Also, it needed an aspirin.

I’ve always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time. It’s the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening. What is writing? It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds.

cover I have some favorites. There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.” Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is “like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” (Not sure I agree—but, lord, do I wish I did.) In an interview, Ron Carlson said, “Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again.” And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die? (Now, that’s one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka’s “A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within,” but I prefer Joy Williams’s take, included in the contributors’ notes of Best American Short Stories 1995:

This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story. Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved. There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really. So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share. All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.

Isn’t that just exactly how it feels? Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone.

cover cover I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors. In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, “Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it’s like pulling your hair out one strand at a time? Chewing chalk?” Yes, I wrote back, that’s precisely what I mean. Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical: “Writing fiction is writing life,” he said. “Except characters don’t go to the bathroom as often.” (Amen to that. I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would have to pee every 35 minutes… talk about squandering the drama.)

cover I received a few outdoorsy metaphors—maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately. Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain.

I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I’m heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking.

Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel. He compared writing to “fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren’t really fishing before, just preparing.” A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, “Ride the wave you’re on.”

Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp: “It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can’t wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you’re totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can’t stand the smell of yourself. If you’re lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times.”

cover Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise: “If you do it regularly,” she said, “you can’t imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you’re no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you.”

Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor. Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, “I feel I’m picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left. The structure’s the same, only all its views are shifted.” Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer’s Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor:

I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, “Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn’t the duck.”

For some reason that’s always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I’m polishing my work—I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn’t the duck.

Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. “Writing is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. Ouch, I thought. And also: Man, that’s true.

Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work. How about you?

Image credit: Flickr/JonRiivera.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Annie Dillard wrote this thing about the inchworm that I never forgot. I can’t remember what book it was in or if it was an explicit metaphor for writing, but it exactly describes how writing a novel feels to me:

    “Few sights are so absurd as that of an inchworm leading its dimwit life…It wears out its days in constant panic.

    “Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet claps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body makes a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What! No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. Its davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have see it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now—What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!

    “‘Why don’t you just jump?’ I tell it, disgusted. ‘Put yourself out of your misery.'”

  2. I’m a sucker for these. I’ve always loved Dan Chaon’s (Edan, I was also a student of his at Oberlin) gem from an interview in the Believer:
    “To be perfectly honest, I found the transition into novel writing extremely hard. I was under contract with Ballantine to deliver a novel after Among the Missing, and I’d written a one-page proposal/summary, but I really had no idea how to proceed. As a short-story writer, I usually just start at the beginning and write through to the end. At first that’s what I thought a novel would be like. I think that the way that I write stories is by instinct. You have some basic ideas — a character, or an image, or a situation that sounds compelling — and then you just feel your way around until you find the edges of your story. It’s like going into a dark room… you stumble around until you find the walls and then inch your way to the light switch. With a novel, it’s more like you’re in a dark gymnasium, or a dark field. You can’t stumble around blindly as easily and find your way.”

    Alice Munro also wrote once that entering a story is like exploring the rooms of a house, or something to that effect, opening closets and doors and the like. I guess I like architectural metaphors. It comforts me to think there might be walls in this process.

  3. Metaphors layered upon metaphors about writing (not that I was expecting anything different..)
    the only metaphor I relate to is the ‘writing muscle’- use or lose it. Work it even for only ten minutes a day

  4. For me, writing is like an archeological dig. I find something. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I’m afraid of breathing on it too hard, lest I damage it.

    I keep digging and sometimes I find an entire beast and sometimes just parts. Then I have to cast about, see if some it got washed away with time and dig around until I find other bits.

    Then string them all together into one incredible skeleton. Sadly, sometimes I get pieces mixed up.

  5. When first-drafting fiction, I’ve often found that it’s not me doing the writing. I’m a channel for other voices. When I can quiet my mind, those voices speak through me. Which is great b/c then I’m not responsible for what they say.

    When revising, I feel like a composer and conductor, arranging the orchestra, chastising the off-key players, tweaking the notes on the page for maximum tunefulness, bouncing madly with my baton, directing the crescendoes, collapsing in a sweaty heap when the music’s over… then giving all the credit to the band and thanking the audience for listening.

  6. I always liked Pope’s little rhyme, “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those move easiest who have learned to dance.” Of course Gardner’s On Being a Novelist was a handbook of mine throughout my 20s. Now I don’t pay attention to anything anyone says about writing. Just as I don’t need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind blows, I don’t need some published git giving me flashy metaphors about writing.

  7. I’m starting my own novel…tomorrow actually…and while chatting with one of my friends this morning (who is by the way, also a writer) she had her own metaphor.

    “It’s not like writers block. I wanna write but nothings coming out and it hurts. It’s writers back-up. Like constipation, only with words.”

    Everyone in our AP class got a good chuckle out of that, and then all wrote it down.

  8. I thoroughly agree with Jennifer Egan and her comparison of writing to physical exercise: “If you do it regularly, you can’t imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you’re no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you.” There’s something about creative fitness, and you certainly need to be creatively fit to embark on the whole novel thing.

    However, I’ve also thought that writing a novel is like trying to keep one of those stunt kites in the air: if you keep the strings in the right place it’s all fine, but move a millimetre the wrong way and the whole thing crashes down. And, like Suzie above, I also see writing being like archaeology: you dig here and there until you find evidence of a story, and it might just be a bone, but what an exciting bone it is.

    But writing is also so individual. I find I work best when I compare myself to no one.

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