Now Find the Feeling

Why is that I start to think about writing even when I’m doing something else entirely, like skiing?

Last week I took a skiing lesson with my family, and the instructor spent a long time talking about the “biomechanics” of going down a mountain. Once he was finished telling us where our weight should be, how our hips should be positioned, and what to do with our arms (I began to feel like a puppet), he said something surprising. “Now, find the feeling,” he told us.

As a conscientious student, at first I just concentrated on my body—feet, hips, bent knees, weight forward, etc. I have been skiing many times and I like to take lessons because I feel myself physically improving each time, and that’s encouraging and fun. But somewhere around the third run, I remembered this idea of finding the feeling. I didn’t exactly let go of the mechanics of skiing, but I put that in my mind, too.

And for a moment there, I had it. I was in the zone.

PFA musesNow I’m back home and trying to get into the zone of writing again. After any time away, it’s easy to feel like the muses all have their backs to you. My usual way of coping is to stay in my chair and write my 500 words for the day. But it’s a dreary business when you don’t like the first hundred words that you write. Or the hundred after that.

When I was on the mountain, I remembered thinking that this idea of “finding the feeling” was what we all try to do when writing. And yet, I thought, it’s also important to pay attention to the mechanics—in the case of writing, maintaining a consistent voice, threading interesting details, revealing character, creating obstacles . . . yikes! There is so much to keep track of. Sometimes I get so involved in setting up a plot point or writing a sentence that will, without sentimentality, reveal how my character feels, that I forget how to play. How to be courageous and try a twist and maybe make some mistakes. (Hey, that’s what tomorrow morning and the delete key is for.)

So this is my takeaway: those mornings when the muses are not around, think about the mechanics of storytelling. Spend the first part of your writing time getting your parts in the right place, the voice consistent, the details particular and telling, the plot moving toward conflict or drama or resolution.

Then let go and just write.



Martha Conway’s new novel, Thieving Forest, won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction and a Silver Medal in Historical Fiction in the Independent Publishers Awards, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.