What Does It All Add Up To?

August 27, 2014


I am an archeologist. You are, too.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

I’ve been working on a memoir for a man with an absolutely fascinating life. (I can’t say who he is just yet. Actually I could tell you, but then I’d have to … well, you know.) I need to have the manuscript completed by mid-September. Here’s where things are right now:

I have dozens of pages of recollections, stories, and drafts my coauthor dictated into his phone before I was involved in the project; and a stack of detailed transcripts of about a dozen hours of phone conversation he and I have had over the last three weeks. A massive pile of sentences and paragraphs—more than 120,000 words of raw material.

What does it all add up to?

Ah. That’s the tricky part.

Some of this mass is semi-finished, some raw as the grass. Some of it will get tossed out. A lot of it stays, though I’m not entirely sure which parts yet. All of it needs work—in some cases, a lot of work.

Today I spent hours moving big pieces around, working to discover which ones fit where and how, and what the picture is supposed to look like when it’s all assembled. It’s like trying to assemble a 120,000-piece jigsaw puzzle—only none of the pieces are quite finished, and about 20,000 of them don’t fit at all.

The task feels so overwhelming that I could see it tipping me over the edge into despair. Except that I’ve been here before. What keeps me sane and gets me through it is a belief I have. It may sound weird, but it is the singular faith that pulls me through every difficult stretch and dark time in the writing process:

To me, the finished story already exists.

This book isn’t something my coauthor and I are inventing, or creating, or building. It’s something that’s already there, in some unseen dimension. Or more accurately, in some half-seen dimension. My job is to find it, see it, grasp hold, and gently but firmly pull it out into the open without breaking it.

Sort of like what it must be like to unearth the fragile bones of a dinosaur fossil and reassemble the skeleton.

This belief is not entirely original. I didn’t even fully realize I had it until I read Stephen King describing it in his wonderful book, On Writing:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

This doesn’t just happen with 100,000-word books.

The other day I reviewed a sales letter for a friend. His draft was barely 1,200 words, a hundredth the size of my memoir-mass. But revising it was the exact same process. Some words and ideas things fit, some didn’t. I could see a few key pieces that were missing, or in the wrong place. That’s a jawbone, not a pelvis, it goes over here. This is the femur of some entirely different animal, set it aside.

This all takes a lot more whisk broom than pickaxe. Get the pieces uncovered and out onto the table without breaking them—that’s often the hardest part, as King points out. It’s easy to tap into a faintly felt idea, write out a paragraph, and then discover that in the process of hammering your fingers on the keyboard, you’ve obliterated the original thought and can’t find it anymore. You can’t go in there with a pneumatic jack-hammer. Yes, sometimes the pieces are under rock shelf. But more often they’re resting under a few inches of sand. It may take a pickaxe to get the 120,000 words down. But then it takes a whisk broom and tweezers to pull out those delicate pieces intact.

Pablo Casals once described playing the cello as “sawing down a tree with one hand while threading a needle with the other.”

Writing is a lot like that.

I think living a life is exactly like that.

It seems to me that my life has been a process of grabbing hold of chunks of experience and turning them this way and that, seeing where they fit into the whole picture, or if they even fit in at all. I grab hold of this job, that relationship, this situation over here … is that a jawbone, or a pelvis? Or is it the femur of some totally different animal altogether?

And when you put all the pieces together, what does the picture on the cover of the box looks like? What exactly is this dinosaur fossil I’m in the midst of excavating? What is the living creature it describes?

What does it all add up to?

Like writing a story, the task of living a life sometimes feels overwhelming. So much so that, at times, you could almost see it tipping you over the edge into despair. What pulls me through every difficult stretch and dark time in the process of living is this article of faith:

To me, the finished story already exists.

I believe my life, your life, everyone’s life, is a perfect thing that already exists, clear and unto itself, a coherent picture in some unseen or partially-seen dimension.

Our job, yours and mine?

To find it, see it, grasp hold, and gently but firmly pull it out into the open where it can breathe, spread its wings, and fly.

(Photo by Klaus Nigge)


  1. Ana

    This post is so profound and true. It also truly helped me in relation to my writing and my process. The finished story already exists! Thank you my dear… you are a brilliant writer.

    • jdmann

      Sweetheart — Takes one ta know one. 🙂

  2. Max House

    John…that was so eloquent and so beautifully written! Thankyou!!

    • jdmann

      Thanks, Max. You rock!

  3. Mary Jo Hughes

    Hi John

    While reading this I was so captured by the way you always seem to give me such a feeling of warmth and comfort in the way you phrase your words into sentences. You draw pictures for me when you write.

    Thank you for this, truly beautiful.

  4. Adrian

    How true a picture you give us! I see a direct parallel to my struggles with composing music. As Mozart said, “All the notes are there–I just have to put them in the right order.” Of course, my decisions about what the right order is won’t come close to Mozart’s. But if I choose correctly, they will fit into the puzzle that is MY life’s journey. John, the more I read your thoughts, the more I love you (which I didn’t think was possible!)

  5. Laura Steward

    Beautiful. You are the Michelangelo of writing! Always knew it. You also helped me realize the reason I was not able to get any of the 3 book ideas I have been thinking on finalized. They are not the book that needs to be unearthed.


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