Corner Post: “When the Work Calls You To It”

A friend of mine told me this once. He is an artist and I was asking him about time, about finding, making time for art with everything going on—our lives are so full, each day full with chores, people, the work required to make enough money to eat, to have heat. My friend said that yes it was hard, but there was this certain moment during the under-painting when he is no longer on the surface of his creation. He is inside that thin space where paint and canvas come together. This moment, he said, is when the work calls you to it. And that’s when the real painting starts. And my question of time, of making time—When the work calls you to it, he said, you simply have to go. You have to give the painting what it demands from you.

The same is true for writing. After preliminary runs, draft atop draft, the story’s rhythm gets caught up in our own, so that our cadence and the story’s cadence are in sync. It is then we are pulled inside the words, for we are a part of the story now, not just on the level of storytelling, but on the level of language. It’s a lot like diving—or belly flopping, which I do better than diving. However I get there, at some point I am able to break through the surface of words, and then my writing opens up. For me it is a moment of transcendence.

There are the rules, the ones given in every creative writing class, on how to approach a story. But as I write, I do so with one guiding principle, which is simply that each story has its own logic, and through those early drafts, I try to figure out that logic. Stories are conversations. The first conversation is between author and story. The second is between story and reader. Initially, you write down the bones, and you, the author are the one in control. But at some point, the story talks back, and tells you what it needs. There remains an impulse to tell the characters what to do and maintain how a plot unfolds, but controlling a story will only take you so far, often making for a robotic progression. Once the story lets me in by revealing its logic, then I write with that logic leading me, and no longer write from those initial rules of approach. Which may mean the opening lines are not a contract with the reader—sound advice I’ve heard and read about and told my students about. In fact, there may not be any contract at all. Rules are just an organizing strategy, a starting place.

I’ve talked in my articles about paying attention to the world around us and the importance of engaging that world. But when writing, it’s important to pay attention to the words on the page. Words, sentences, plotlines, character thoughts really are like a river. They flow this way or that, they eddy, they waterfall, they do all sorts of things, but there is this rhythm to how they flow. Sometimes I literally trace my finger over pages as if I’m carving a line in dust or tracing creek water or river water, following that path, figuring out the flow, whatever it is.

For words create their own code and after long hours of staring at them, thinking of their different meanings and connotations, and eventually tracing their rhythm, the story’s logic comes into focus. As I’ve mentioned before, what’s so fascinating about writing is that someone else can look at that same group of words and find a different flow, a different pattern. Because what we write, what we come in contact with, what we see, is a part of us, and so that flow on the page, what we make of it, is part ours. It’s just difficult to see in the initial drafts. We have to uncover what is already there.

When that moment comes, when we are inside the story, then we have to push away the clocks, have to let the rest of the world die around us, so that we can give our attention to the story at hand. If we’re making money 9-5, but a story calls us to it, then all week long, we have to tread water, staying in the story’s world on lunch breaks or after supper until the weekend comes, so that we can write in longer stretches. Or, we do what the world tells us not to—we call in sick so we can write and remain in the world of the story. In the end it is about priorities of time. What are you going to give your time to?

And how do you know when you’re inside the world of the story? It happens when you’re writing and nothing else is in your head—not what’s cooking on the stove, not the kids yelling for your attention—just that world on the page you have invented. Or at least, the kids, the cooking are tuned down very low, but the writing, what is before you is burning hot and bright. A blue flame way up. There. That’s my bad analogy, but it’s true.

The first key is to find the story’s embedded logic. Then follow that logic, dive in. Once the work calls you to it, go. Don’t hesitate here. Because just as a story lets you inside, it can push you back out. Time for hesitation is over. Just go. Write. Go.

James Braziel

About James Braziel

James Braziel is the author of the novels Birmingham, 35 Miles and Snakeskin Road. His work has appeared in journals and newspapers including the New York Times. Currently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.



  • I’m happy to have someone describe my process as a writer. Thanks for making even clearer to me what I’m doing when crafting a story!

  • P.S. I’m going to link this piece to my blog: lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com