The Writer as Alchemist

Most everyone has heard some version of the story of Rumpelstiltskin; where the miller bragged to the king that his daughter was so clever that she could spin straw into gold? The king of course, being the greedy sort of ruler that he was, had her immediately imprisoned in a cell filled with straw and a spinning wheel and commanded to spin the straw into gold before morning on pain of death. She can’t. She cries. A weird little man appears and says he’ll do it for her if she gives him her necklace. She gives it to him. He spins the straw into gold. The king wants more and the demand is made again and again, day after day, until the girl has nothing left to give but promises the little man her firstborn child. At this the little man spins so much gold that the king immediately makes the girl his queen and then they have a child and the weird little man reappears and demands his payment.

It is a strange story, full of disturbing issues such as, why would you agree to marry a man who imprisoned you and threatened you with death if you couldn’t live up to your father’s bragging about you? What did the weird little dude want with a human baby? How did the little guy actually turn the straw into gold? The last one is not so much disturbing as it is fascinating (at least to me) because it deals with the concept of alchemy.

It was once believed that when practiced, the art of alchemy could turn everyday materials, such as lead (or straw) into gold or could be used to find a universal elixir that would provide eternal (or extended) life. And isn’t that exactly what writers do every day?

The Alchemy of the Written Word

The practice of Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt and the city of Alexandria that was a center of alchemical learning in the first few centuries AD. The written word has been around far longer than that.

Creative writing is all about turning ideas into words. If done correctly, these words take an idea, a world, characters that only ever existed in your imagination and make them come to life. If you spin your words well, that story, those characters, that world, your idea will live forever. And if that isn’t real alchemy, I don’t know what is.

Think about it, we have an idea for a story; an inspiration if you will. It may grow in our minds over time or arrive completely intact, in one instant. In whatever way that it arrives, that idea then has to be spun in such a way that it becomes real to the reader and that entails finding the right words.

All the ideas in the world do you absolutely no good unless you know how to put those ideas down into words. You can sit there staring at your computer all day and will have nothing to show for it but a blank screen and a headache. So how do you bridge the gap? How do you get the ideas out of your head and down onto paper in such a way that they will actually make sense to someone else? It begins by collecting your thoughts.

Bridging the Gap between the Idea and the Reality

The bridge between the ideas that you have and the words that you write is actually quite simple.  It consists of learning how to collect your thoughts. Just as the miller’s daughter couldn’t make gold (or have her little visitor do it for her) without straw, so you cannot create a story worth remembering unless you are able to put your thoughts down in a coherent manner.

Many people believe that their thoughts and ideas are coherent; that they make sense. And in their minds those ideas may seem perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, there usually comes a time between having of the idea and getting it out on paper where something important gets lost. Somewhere you misplaced the nuances that made your topic so appealing when you first thought about it. The following five tips can help you in collecting your own thoughts in order to more easily bridge that gap.

  1. Keep a Writing Journal.  Not only should you keep a writing journal, it should stay with you at all times. This doesn’t have to be a large journal. It can be a small, pocket sized notebook if need be. And yes, it can be an annoyance to always carry a journal around with you.  However, being able to write down your thoughts as they occur can be a lifesaver, especially if you are in the middle of something else; like a meeting at work or a family activity.
  2. Write Down Everything. It isn’t enough to just have a writing journal; you have to get into the habit of writing everything down. I don’t care if it is just a fleeting thought; you need to write it down. You need to write everything down. Get used to putting your ideas into words and make sure that when you re-read what you have written that it makes sense to you as well. If you look back through your journal and find that you can’t understand what you were talking about, then you need to refine your note taking style.
  3. Re-Write Every Day. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but at the end of every day you need to go through that day’s pages of your writing journal and take those ideas that you have written down and copy them into a working notebook or even type them into your computer. This will not only help to keep your ideas fresh in your head, it will also help you to begin a working copy of your idea; one which you can adjust and adapt as need be.
  4. Be Your Own Worst Critic.  It is not enough to simply write your ideas down, nor even enough to re-write your ideas so that they flow smoothly. Sometimes you have to pull the entire structure apart and re-build it from the ground up.  Even though the idea may have sounded good the first time you wrote it down, it can always be better! Write and re-write your ideas out until they say exactly what you want them to; until you can see the picture that they paint in your mind.
  5. Use a Sounding Board. It helps to have a sounding board; someone who is willing to read your work and give you their unbiased opinion. It will not be this person’s job to edit your work. You simply want their reaction to how the words are written; what sort of picture that it paints in their head. If you do not have a friend or acquaintance who is willing to serve as a sounding board for you, there are other options, such as websites out there that allow you to post your work and have readers critique it for you or creative writing coaches that can help you work your idea into an actual completed project.  

Just as with any skill, successful getting your ideas down where you can see them and work with them takes time and practice. You may not immediately start turning straw into gold as a writer, but eventually you will see the alchemical process begin it’s magical work.

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