Locked in

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When we are toddlers, everything in the world, it seems, is full of novelty. There had to be a first time when I saw a butterfly break free from its cocoon and take flight, or a first time when I saw something as mundane as an apple. I wonder what happens when we try to approach every piece of fruit with that mentality regardless of how many times we’ve seen it. Take Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” series of still life paintings, for instance. It’s just some flowers, but when you take a moment with it, you can see how brilliantly he brings out the detail of this miracle of nature. For me, I look around at the world with some curiosity, but I don’t inspect every building on the street or every noodle in my plate of pasta as I would when I was younger or as if I am in the Museum of Modern Art.

At the beginning of the lockdown in March, I am almost embarrassed to confess that there was a small part of me that could not wait for it to begin. I was going to have a week off school while the administration adapted to the situation. This allowed me to put more time into my creative writing ambitions. After reading “On Writing” by Stephen King, I sprung into action. The day after I finished the book, I pulled out a Trello board filled with some ideas I’d always had for fiction to write. I picked one story, did a bit of research and ended up writing 6,500 words by the end of the day. The following day, I let my mind run without restriction and produced another 2,000. Then 3,250. Then another 2,000. Then another 2,000, until I stabilized there for two and a half weeks. Each day I would record my thoughts on the writing experience as I became more comfortable with not knowing what was coming next. I was writing a horror story, so I couldn’t rely on my conventional outline because, to paraphrase King, if I don’t know where the story’s going, the reader certainly won’t be able to anticipate what will come next.

Growing up, math was almost exclusively my favorite subject. Inherently, I wanted to eliminate mystery instead of being satisfied in an unknowing state. And when I put the pieces together, I loved how elegantly and predictably numbers and variables behaved, and I loved that there was one clear answer. Nothing in math is a coincidence, so I can always count on its consistency. With writing, there is no single answer out there, waiting to be discovered. Instead, I had to create the answer, and that was a somewhat daunting notion that brought on a host of emotions.

From what I have picked up from the teachings of accomplished writers, there is no single way to write, and everyone has to find the system that works for them. Before March, almost all of my writing was planned out. I knew exactly what was going to happen when, and that gave me a sense of security. I did not have to wonder what was going to happen next, wonder if I’d get lucky and come up with a stellar scene on the spot in 12 hours. But how many times in life is everything pre-planned for you like that? Maybe planning out my writing calmed me, but it also lulled me into a false sense of security. In a world where we do increasingly have the ability to plan out what we say, it’s easy to let the skills of spontaneity wither away. But it is important to allow oneself to become immersed in another world, approaching scenes with curiosity, leaving enough space to see where characters might go next. That way hopefully our artistic expression can survive, despite a lack of enthusiasm toward the ordinary.

Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Matthew Turk is a writer for The Stanford Daily.