When an aging septic system backs up into the house, metaphors for writing abound. Waste solids accumulate underground like ideas in a writer’s head. Eventually they surface. The sludge or manuscript stinks. Ernest Hemingway told a young admirer, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
To clean up the mess takes more than a scrub brush or spell check. You have to figure out what isn’t working. Even with the aid of a plumber or critique group, the answers can be elusive. Promising suggestions yield dead ends. No, last winter’s freeze doesn’t explain a blockage that recurred in August.
Fixing one problem reveals another. The digger you deep, the more likely you’ll find troubles no one suspected. Who imagined a second tank lurked deep within our septic system? Who guessed one minor character created a major plot hole, or the historical mystery revolved around a technology not yet invented? With underlying issues resolved, we’ve put off till next spring deciding how to repair our landscaping. Polishing a draft, too, must wait till the major fixes are complete.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.