David Lynch came to a creative crossroads during the five-year production of his first film, Eraserhead. The project was coming together scene by scene, but the underlying meaning remained elusive to its maker. What, exactly, was he trying to say with this odd character and the oblique but compelling sequence of events along his arc?
Aware of the potency of his creation, fearful of losing its essence, Lynch turned to a familiar text for guidance.
“I got out my Bible,” Lynch writes in Catching the Big Fish, “and I started reading.”
Why the Bible? I’ve read quite a bit by and about David Lynch over the years, and I think this might be one of the only mentions of religion in the entire corpus. For decades, Lynch’s primary mode of spirituality has been Transcendental Meditation. Yet when he found himself in search of meaning, he turned closer to home. Having read a good chunk of the Old and New Testaments, I understand the inclination completely. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the Bible is undeniably a rich, dense, and evocative work of literature. Read nearly any passage at random and it’ll spark something. Unless, of course, you’re unlucky enough to stumble into the begats. (Apparently, there are 139 in all.)
“One day,” Lynch goes on, “I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible, because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled this vision for me, 100 percent.”
No, Lynch doesn’t share the sentence that crystalized Eraserhead in his mind. I doubt it was Ezekiel 25:17. Whatever the words, I see why he felt the need for a central sentence, a verbal locus around which his inchoate notions of the film might coalesce. Some writers suggest identifying a theme for a project at the start, but I’m not convinced that’s possible. The best material comes straight from below. Or above, depending on your point of view. How much can you do on a conscious level to shift those tidal forces? All too little. Without psychedelics, anyway.
Rather than steer the meaning of your work in advance, identify your intentions from what you’ve already written. You have to make the thing before you know what the thing is. This is a characteristic of the writing craft that distinguishes it from, let’s say, cabinetry.
It isn’t enough to identify the theme of the work, either. You still have to sift what you mean to say from what you’ve actually said.
I recall that at some point in On Writing, or perhaps in a foreword to a new edition of The Gunslinger, Stephen King writes about his earliest glimpse of what would become the monumental Dark Tower series. The idea for the seven-book saga came to him not as a fully realized story with a beginning, middle, and end but as an image, what eventually became the opening words of The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Nothing but a bit of stone poking out above the sand. Trusting the creative process, however, King began the excavation. Word by word, he watched a vast edifice emerge. Even though he only had that singular image at first, he knew almost from the start that he was digging something rich, deep, and significant out of himself.
It’s true. Deep down, you know when you’re onto something major, which is why it’s that much more tragic when you let it stay buried.
If a Biblical verse fails to crystallize the intentions buried in your work, browse the Upanishads. Or page through the I Ching. If the great texts fail you, watch the equally enigmatic Eraserhead. Immerse yourself in a work of art that resonates with you below conscious awareness. Eventually, something you encounter will harmonize with the thing you’ve created, if there’s any truth to it. Once that connection illuminates “the thing as a whole,” as Lynch puts it, get out your chisel and scrape away everything that isn’t that.
“Carving is easy,” Michelangelo once tweeted. “You just go down to the skin and stop.” (If the sculptor didn’t say that, the Ninja Turtle probably did.) When you’re writing a first draft, you’re not sculpting, you’re hewing marble from a quarry. Don’t seek the shape hidden inside the block until you’ve done the work of unearthing it.