How to build high-performance writing

At the end of a long, dark tunnel, I think I saw a glimpse of spring. The weather was warmer last Sunday and the sun was out. My spirits lifted as I thought about the adventures I had last summer with my mountain bike.
I closed my eyes and imagined twisting down some steep, narrow single track at Buck Hill, or rocketing down the hills at Murphy-Hannerhan park.
Mountain biking is not my passion; it’s something that feels good, so I do it. It feels so good, in fact, that I took my not-too-fancy mountain bike to Erik’s Bike Shop in Richfield and spent over $160 on a new Schimano Delore LX rear wheel, rear 8-speed cassette and Sachs chain.
Of course it snowed on Monday so I couldn’t try out my new parts, but I was still excited that I got to use my wrenches and fine- tune my bike. As I was developing ideas for this column, it occurred to me that tinkering with mechanical things and tinkering with language isn’t all that different.
Many believe that writing should be a completely spontaneous outpouring of ideas and emotion, never to be retouched or manipulated after the first words are written. That’s great for some beat poets, but I prefer to think of a piece of writing as a mountain bike frame just waiting to have the right parts put on it.
Without tinkering, writing is nothing more than a bare bicycle frame. A bike frame may be pretty to look at, but what can you do with it? You can’t ride it because it has no wheels. You can’t adjust anything because it has no parts. It’s just pointless!
Looking at a raw piece of writing, I just want to take it away from whoever did it and start tinkering, adding a nice LX brake system and some Mavic tires.
I know this is how my editor feels when I hand him one of my incomplete frames. He’ll say, “Yeah, nice column, but I’d like you to make the changes I’ve outlined in these next two pages.”
Writing does have its creative side — the primal outpouring of ideas onto paper. That part of writing is a lot like the riding part of mountain biking. It’s fun, exhilarating and makes you feel good all over. However, just as a poorly adjusted mountain bike can decrease the quality of the ride, a poorly adjusted piece of writing can decrease the quality of the read.
When I was growing up, I developed my affection for tinkering not with my writing, but with my Legos.
I think the first set of Legos I got was a model motorcycle, one of the “technical” sets. It had a one cylinder engine, chain, something that resembled a gas tank and a steering column. In just about every way it resembled a real motorcycle, and I got to build it piece by piece. I only built that model motorcycle once, though, and tried all the other models in the instruction booklet.
After I had mastered what the toy manufacturers had developed, I went on to create my own designs. At first they were simple and crude, but with luck and persistence I was able to design impressive models. Before long, I was able to make a car chassis complete with a two-cylinder engine, two speed gearbox, rear independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering. Man, it was cool!
I still love to tinker. But I use other, larger Lego substitutes. When I learned more about how much fun revising writing could be, it became an acceptable substitute.
I stared looking on my family’s computer at pieces of my writing, mostly homespun fiction, from years before. The weak writing from days past was painful to read at times.
I couldn’t keep myself from going into my old stories — totally revamping the structure, plot and characters. I was obsessed with tinkering. Some projects became pretty expansive and others were never completed.
My mountain bike is an outlet for tinkering, also. I sat on my deck each Sunday morning all last summer behind my upturned mountain bike. I adjusted the brakes so each pad hit the rim exactly the same way. I cleaned and re-greased the bike while time just sort of stood still. I’d then throw on my cycling shoes, down a can of Mountain Dew and hit the trail to field-test my adjustments.
With my experience making minor adjustments, I have learned one important lesson: Sometimes minor adjustments aren’t enough.
In writing, you can’t always keep what you want in a piece. Sometimes there is no way to fix a poor transition, weak argument or a bad simile.
In those cases, you may have to decide to completely get rid of a few paragraphs (sometimes even a few pages) and use something completely different. In order to have better, stronger and more cohesive writing, you have to sacrifice older parts, and invest brain power into creating new ones.
At the bike shop last Sunday I was forced to make an investment in my bike because tinkering couldn’t fix my problem.
My bike came equipped with SunTour parts; unfortunately, that company went out of business shortly after I bought my bike.
My rear derailleur had been skipping out of gear every time I hit a bump. I tried tightening it, adjusting it, even taking it apart and putting it back together, but it was still too loose and my gears still skipped. I needed a new derailleur. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just get a new one because there are no SunTour parts. I had to buy a whole new gear system.
By making the $160 investment, I now have more flexibility. If I want, I can upgrade just my derailleur rather than a whole new rear setup. I can add just one cog onto the cog set, I can buy new shifters — finally, I can tinker again!
My desire to keep the SunTour components was similar to my devotion to an old piece of writing that, no matter what I did, just wouldn’t work right. There may be a personal attachment, and perhaps some parts can be salvaged, but I needed something newer and stronger.
Is it OK to revise one’s old writings or should they remain a sanctuary of a particular time? To me, old writing isn’t a frozen moment, it is a piece of ourselves that we leave around. We should, in time, pick up, tinker with, massage and improve it. And when necessary, scrap it for something completely new.
Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.