“Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”
– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Have you ever split logs?
It’s exhilarating. The heft of the axe as you lift it, the swing of the heavy blade, the tug at your sinews, the cracking sound of splitting wood….Mmmm. Very satisfying.
In one of my college English textbooks, there was an essay by Annie Dillard that changed the way I thought about writing.
The essay begins in a drafty cabin on the Puget Sound where Dillard is trying to finish a manuscript. The writing isn’t going particularly well. She’s also trying to chop enough wood to heat the place, and she’s floundering there, too.
The chopping block is a flat old stump where she stands the logs on end. She hacks at them; they fall over; she tries again. This time, she gets a piece of it, a small splinter off the side. After a few more hacks at it — “chipping flints,” Dillard calls it — she’s got an impressive little pile of wood chips, but no firewood.
That night she has a dream. She sees that the way to split the log is to imagine it is a transparent thing through which the axe head must pass to reach its real target: the chopping block.
What does this have to do with writing, or with turning point stories?
The lesson on log-splitting applies to storytelling, too. When we set pen to paper to write our stories, we start with a vision. The writer’s task is to translate that vision into something real and tangible. However it appears to us inside our heads — in fine, vivid detail, rich with emotion, full of meaning — we are confronted with a blank page. Writing is difficult because it requires us to take those “things that seemed limitless when they were inside your head” as Stephen King says, and wrestle them to the page. This is much harder than it looks.
The talent of the artist is in rendering the vision in their heads in physical form, as a sculpture, a painting, a photograph, a piece of music, a poem. The trick is in the rendering, though. Because even if we do so perfectly, what appears in physical form can never exactly replicate the vision.
The vision is an ephemeral, limitless multidimensional thing; the stuff of dreams.
The representation of the vision in physical form is limited; it cannot capture and contain such qualities. Knowing this in advance, the artist must be willing to settle for an imperfect facsimile, something that is “no more than living size” when it is brought out.
This is where we so often give up as writers: “if I can’t do this perfectly, if I can’t render this exactly as I envisioned it, then I don’t want to do it at all.” We are our own worst critics.
So how does one aim for the chopping block, as a writer? By looking beyond the “logs”– the stories begun but not yet finished, the novels knocking around in your noggin, whatever it is inside of you that might want to leap onto the page — and focusing on what is solid. The chopping block for the writer is the act of writing itself. Our visions for our work are intangible, but the work itself is tangible .
The products of our work may not be perfect. But they have an advantage over the stories and ideas that seemed limitless inside our heads: they are solid. The vision may be perfect, but it doesn’t do anybody any good if it cannot be shared with others. That means we have to take on the difficult task of looking through the raw materials, cutting through the vision and swinging the axe decisively toward the chopping block: the finished product. * However imperfect your efforts, get out there with your axe and keep working at it.
*Stephen Covey put it succinctly:”Start with the end in mind.”