Writing is Like Digging for Diamonds

I was once told that writing is like excavating diamonds. Raw diamonds are naturally stuck in big chunks of worthless rock that is in turn buried deep in the mud. Stories, similar to diamonds, have an essentially perfect, natural form and the writer’s job is to chip away all the rock and crud until the pure diamond is exposed.

I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time and I like it, in theory. It makes the purpose of editing rather clear: all the superfluous descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that add no real value to your writing is the worthless crud you need to scrape off the diamond. Story therefore already exists, lurking beneath the surface, perfectly formed. It’s just waiting for the right person with the right excavation tools and skill set. This doesn’t mean that everyone can succeed if they start digging. Even if the diamond already exists, the writer could leave too much “in the rough,” or could possibly dig up only a portion of the story, thereby reducing its ultimate value. A one-caret diamond might be great, but not compared to the ten-caret diamond you might have just broke it off of.

I’m not sure if this is true for fiction writing, because when I write fiction the story is always evolving and I don’t think I ever end up writing–or excavating, as the metaphor would say–the original gem that I expected to dig up out of my imagination. But I do believe this metaphor is true when it comes to creative non-fiction, or memoir.

Like most writers, I normally go through drafts and drafts and more drafts when I’m writing a fiction story. But when I’m writing a piece of memoir, I have to stew on the moment, the specific memory or event that I want to write about. Because to me, it really only happened one way. There is only one way to tell it. And I have to wait for the correct sentences to float to the surface of my imagination:

  • Using a metal detector, I search over wide areas looking for the hidden treasure. I dig up a lot of worthless dirty pennies along the way.
  • Once I’ve located a diamond, it’s time for the careful process of chipping away the crud still clinging to it.

When I wrote my most recent memoir piece, “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father,” I only wrote it once. In fact, it was already completely written in my head before I wrote it down.

I used to drive 2.5 hours from university back home for occasional weekend visits and holidays. I like to drive late at night when it’s dark and nobody else is on the road to cause traffic congestion or stress. Free of distractions, the title popped into my head first. Then the first line, “Usually, the first question people ask is how long it’s going to take before you ‘get over it.'” Then the whole first paragraph and then the entire story gurgled up out of my subconscious, bursting with the desire to be written down in its pure unadulterated form before I dropped it back in the mud. For the rest of the ride, I repeated those sentences over and over to myself so I wouldn’t forget them. When I snuck into my mom’s house at 1 AM, I wrote the whole story down, as fast as I could, before falling asleep.

Honestly, I don’t think I altered more than a few words here and there, to avoid repetition, when I edited that story the next morning. To me, then, memoir is already written. It’s just a matter of mining out the perfect gem.

What do you think? Do you agree with the diamond-digging metaphor?

(Image, Creative Commons, The National Archives)

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11 thoughts on “Writing is Like Digging for Diamonds

  1. Kat says:

    Interesting analogy…and I believe quite apt! Writing a memoir requires learning how to condense a large part of your life into only a few pages. You have to figure out what the ‘diamond’ is among the hubris. I’m in the process of writing a memoir, and sometimes this process is like getting a root canal without Novocaine. But the end result is worth it!

    Kat

    • hannahkarena says:

      I actually think writing a memoir requires expanding and examining small moments–reflecting only on the diamonds–and then linking those moments together. David Sedaris, one of my favorite memoir writers for example, links together a whole series of important life events–exploding what might seem insignificant then into life-changing in retrospect. Though memoir definitely has to cover vast expanses of time, condensing could end up reading like a summary.

      • Kat says:

        I do agree with what you said. I didn’t mean that you condense to the point of writing a summary. I meant it more as taking insignificant or significant moments in your life that add up to a life-changing moment. I was thinking along the lines of an autobiography where it is a chronicle of life as opposed to a memoir where it is more about certain events. Maybe condensing wasn’t the right word. 🙂

  2. Samir says:

    I suppose it makes sense as you say for editing or as Kat says, for memoirs where the story is already there and you need to delve deeper to find it. I’m just not sure if I agree with the analogy when it comes to writing first draft stories. True, we all have some stories that are ‘in’ us and are yearning to be told (or in this case, written), but overall – I believe the imagination and the thinking mind will outweigh this concept on the long run. We are constantly learning, responding to stimuli, and thinking about things that, as writers, we are bound to put all these together and come up with stories.

    Does tis make sense?

    • hannahkarena says:

      Yes, that makes sense. You believe that writing is a more natural creation–you’re forging the diamond in your imagination as you go along, rather than digging it out. Thanks for weighing in!

    • Kat says:

      I love the fact that there are so many ways this can be understood. I hadn’t thought of how for others it may be actually forging the diamond as they go. I think writing is a combination of all of the above. We have a story within us to tell, but we are constantly evolving, changing, responding to stimuli, etc. as Samir says. Therefore, our writing may be a mix of digging out the diamond AND forging a diamond. I think of Fiction writing where the writer is on a journey, following the plot and characters, sometimes not quite knowing where the journey is headed. The diamond is being forged as they go. Good point, Samir!

      • hannahkarena says:

        I agree with you, Kat. I think I probably experience the mixture of digging and forging myself. It’s so hard to define what the writing experience is like. It feels different with every piece!

  3. Lauren says:

    It’s an interesting theory! I never thought of it like that, but I can definitely see it working. I think, even with fiction, you may want to add details upon details, but int he end, you want to make sure what you have is relevant and good. I know I thought all of my detail was phenomenal at first, but when editing, I went back and realized much was pointless, and I just wanted the story to get to the point. So, I can definitely see editing, more so than writing, being like digging for diamonds.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I have such a hard time when editing, sometimes. I feel like every sentence is a diamond. I think it’s good to have a diamond-hunting partner to help me tell the difference between–to add another precious treasure to the metaphor–fools gold and gold.

  4. robincoyle says:

    I’ve had to pull over on the road to write down a word or sentence or story idea before it escaped me so I know what you mean about repeating sentences before they can be “dropped back in the mud!”

    • hannahkarena says:

      I admit it. I totally write down things at red lights. I cross my fingers for a red light to appear sometimes; to make that green light red just so I have five seconds to write it down!

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