The essay I intended for today’s post was about the fine line between solitude and loneliness – a boundary I often have difficulty negotiating. I wrote about eight hundred words, and it was good – but it wasn’t good enough.  And even though I could post it, I know it’s not ready yet, so I’m putting it aside, to let it incubate. And let me tell you: I’m incredibly proud of myself for holding it back.

The temptation to publish – even prematurely – is enormous, and I’m not just talking about meeting my deadline. With the arrogance that is part of being a writer, I think that what I have to say is Important! Provocative! Scintillating! Profound!

It may be – when it’s ready, but not yet.

Knowing when something isn’t ready might be even harder than knowing when something is. So how do I know that the piece I intended to write still needs to ferment?

In this instance, the telltale sign was introducing an entirely new idea in the final paragraph. At 800 words, the post was already pushing the limit. Clearly, I’d written my piece, but I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say.

I’d been thinking about this essay for a while. Initially, I saw a clear connection between balancing the fine line between solitude and loneliness and the first Tuesday in March –Town Meeting Day in Vermont. But when I wrote it out, I couldn’t connect the dots.

When I drafted the piece, I was surprised at the direction I took – not at all what I’d planned. But I followed it. After all, one of the reasons I write down my ideas is to discover what they are. What I wrote was good, but it wasn’t about solitude or loneliness. It was about public service, but I didn’t realize it at the time. All I knew was that eight hundred words are too many for a post. Six hundred is better, and to write that short and still write well, I have to stick to the point. So I put the piece aside overnight, to let it incubate.

I love the image of placing a rough draft in a drawer and finding a changed and improved version later, like wine drawn from a cask that’s been cellared for months.  But the truth is, the bubbling transformation happens all in my head. Sometime between putting my essay aside on Saturday and looking at it again on Sunday, I’d figured it out: the problem is that I really had two essays, one about solitude versus loneliness, and one about public service. I also had a third: this one, about allowing time for ideas to mature.

Just like the process that turns grape juice into wine, giving our words time to age allows us to develop complex ideas, deeper thoughts, and clearer expression. And like any good vintage, the final product is worth the wait.

Deborah Lee Luskin often writes about Vermont, where she has lived since 1984. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com

30 thoughts on “Fermentation

  1. Charlene,
    Yes: look at your verbs for power and metaphor; combine sentences; set yourself a strict word-limit – and meet it. For a three-minute radio commentary, I’m limited to 500 words or less, so I pare and whittle and diet, until I meet my word count. Writing short is a wonderful discipline -especially in this digital world.
    Thanks for commenting. Deborah.

  2. If this was your third theme, the the third time really is a charm! I love what you have to say about letting the idea ferment – let it simmer – and the various themes emerge. Thank you for sharing this! I’m looking back at what I wrote yesterday with new eyes.

  3. Jessica,
    Glad this is helpful. It’s said that “time heals all wounds.” Well time helps us clarify our thoughts, too.
    All best, Deborah.

  4. Deborah, I have that to happen to me all the time–putting aside a concept, even if just in my head, to work on something else–then going back to the back-burner in my head to find that 3 or 4 or 5 new poems have sprouted there! Very wise decision, that of putting aside a piece of work and letting it incubate, as you say! Very helpful post, this!

  5. Grandbee,
    Glad you found this helpful – though it sounds as if you already use fermentation to good purpose.
    Always nice to hear from you, Deborah.

  6. I agree – sometimes I’m so excited to post things that I just write it and click “Publish” but when I read them later I realize my work still needed editing.
    I’m excited to read your essay once it’s finished “fermenting” though!

    • Dear Constant Scribbler –
      Cyber editing is hard to resist – as is pushing “send” on emails that should never be sent – and oh, how I regret it when it’s too late! Learning to inhibit the instinct for immediate gratification is a real challenge in this instant age.
      Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  7. I’ve never written a blog. I have only just started writing responses to editorials. I have come to trust my views and differences of opinion. Your words today have been encouraging, Thanks! The cask maybe ready to tap.
    I’ll stay in touch with you.

  8. Hi Pete,
    We held Town Meeting in Vermont today, and one of the many things I love about it is how friends and neighbors have a chance to air their different points of view. Your dissent is essential. Bravo!
    Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  9. Thank you, Deborah, for sharing this post that includes both practical application (word count, etc.) and a wine reference. Any post that does those two things piques my interest! I’m new to blogging and am attempting a post a day which doesn’t necessarily promote fermentation. But I’m finding if I start a post, even if it’s only a title, and come back in a couple of days that it’s ready to be drawn from the cask. Thanks for sharing this lesson.

    • Ruminating Merlin,
      A post a day is a high bar indeed. Following through on the message of the post, I have to ask: what’s the purpose of posting daily? Would simply writing daily fulfill the same purpose, and maybe posting only once or twice a week? Something to consider, anyway.
      Thanks for writing. Deborah.

      • Deborah, thank you for taking time to thoughtfully respond to my comment. I’m posting most days for reasons that seem valid to me but may not be for others. However, your reply has given me reason to reconsider my approach and I will ponder it. Thanks!

  10. Good to know about the length of posts but I can’t wait to share your process of letting work go for a while to ferment with my students! And I feel the comment on how to shorten using power verbs, metaphors, keeping a strict word limit ( which I have never tried in the classroom but will) insightful. So lucky you didn’t go with your original plans!

    • Dear Planning,
      Glad to know this post was helpful. A lesson I’ve used to teach extreme compression is the six-word story, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Learn more at sixwordstory.net.
      Thanks for writing, Deborah

  11. I know what you mean about a piece of writing not being ready to be published. The Post a Day Challenge I committed myself to has caused me to post a few pieces; which had the potential to be great. They were good but with more time and thought they could have been better. As Jim Collins said, Good is the enemy of Great. Cheers!

  12. I love your use of “fermentation” for describing the process of letting words age… giving them time to build a chemistry; not knowing until later whether they will become something of delight, or something more tannic.

  13. Thank you for this post! Regretfully, I can see how it is true….I really, really, REALLY want to send something out, a short story in particular…I’ve revised and edited and edited and revised. I’m wondering if I’m wise to keep holding on to it, or if it’s cowardice preventing me from sending it now. Thanks for your insights!

    • Michelle,
      This is a tough one – eagerness v. fear. Jamie is posting a series about writing and fear – though she hasn’t covered the fear of rejection yet. Have you had anyone else read the piece? And if you think it’s ready and send it out, what’s the worst that could happen?
      Good luck, Deborah.

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