Your story started off well, and then went south. You can do better.
My professor in the graduate writing workshop at the University of Arizona waited through a few tepid comments about my first story: some good images, a few funny lines, a sort of intriguing female protagonist, and then he weighed in: “I don’t think there’s much else to say about this piece. Let’s move on.”
At break, having just experienced the embarrassment of hearing my story—my very first story ever submitted to my very first writing workshop—was not even worthy of discussion, I slunk out of the room. I knew no one in the program. I’d transferred in midyear. Literally, people were avoiding me, separating to make room on my way to the bathroom where I splashed water on my face, stared in the mirror, and considered jumping out the third-floor window, if only I could be certain it would do more than cripple me. I wasn’t sure I could go back into that classroom. Wasn’t this the very thing I dreaded? Public humiliation? Destructive criticism? Oh, wait, there was no criticism. The story hadn’t been worthwhile enough to warrant any.
A young man in wire-frame glasses came into the bathroom. He was one of my fellow workshop members. “I’m Rick,” he said. “I liked your story.”
Surely he jested. “Is it always like this?” I asked.
“Sometimes worse. I wouldn’t take it too seriously. You’ll get used to it.”
“I feel like putting a gun to my head.”
“I’ve done that,” he said. I gaped at him. “Just to see what it feels like. I wasn’t serious. Though I do know a woman who took her novel manuscript outside, roped it to a tree, and shot it six times with a forty-five. She had some other issues too. Anyway, you’ll survive. We all do. Have you ever been to Alaska?” he asked.
My story had been set there. “No,” I said.
“I didn’t think so. Still . . . there’s something there. Don’t give up on it. You ready?”
I came back to class, and sat mute for the rest of the period, wondering if my face looked as red and hot as it felt.
That was thirty years ago, and amazingly I’m still here.
So let’s be honest. We’re not as weak and sensitive as we think. Otherwise we would have—make that I would have—given up long ago.
That day I went home from my workshop, told my girlfriend I’d made a mistake and that I didn’t belong in the program. I’d been exposed. Fortunately, she wouldn’t let me pack up the car and skip town, as I insisted.
I read over my professor’s comment: “Your story started off well, then went south. You can do better.” Was there any truth in it? Not that I could see. Or make that not that I could see at the moment because I couldn’t imagine what “do better” meant. I’d given the story my all. You can do better. But how? The problem was I worried I couldn’t. As one of my classmates put it back then about his own writing, “I’m afraid I’ll knock and nobody will be home.”
But a year later, after I survived my initiation and had handed in a couple stories better received, I took out that first story, which might as well have had the mark of Cain on it for how cursed it felt, looked it over quickly, trashed all but the first three pages of the 15-page story, and with that brazen determination that writers need to slash and burn their way to the hidden heart of a story I rewrote it. Two months later I sent the new version off, and miracle of miracles, it became my first publication in the not-too-shabby Antioch Review. I’d learned the first really important precept of being a writer: you have to save yourself in this business—over and over and over again.
So how’s that done. Well, first let’s look at what you need to save yourself from. Mostly, that’s yourself. Your own fears and doubts. And what form does this come in? Make that forms, because fears and doubts keep transmuting into other fears and doubts. For instance, you sit down at your desk, ready to work, and then you remember you haven’t watered the plants. Back at your desk, just as you place your fingers on the keyboard, it occurs to you that you forgot to make a dental appointment for your youngest child. That done—it took twenty minutes because they had you on hold—you finally clean the coffee stain up from two weeks ago on your desk and now you’re ready but it appears there’s a rain storm coming and you have to close all the windows and make sure the car windows aren’t open either even though it’s unlikely since the car is in the garage, but never mind, you check it anyway, and then there’s the little matter of the dead flies on your windowsill—how did they get there? Here comes the dustbuster . . .vrooom . . .
You get the point. This sort of procrastination can go on forever. And let’s not even talk about Facebook, email, twitter, iTunes, Angry Birds, Words with Friends, not to mention looking up the ex-boyfriend on classmates.com. To paraphrase, it’s the resistance, stupid.
It’s resistance because you’re afraid of failure; it’s resistance because you’re afraid of failing again; it’s resistance because you’re afraid of failing after finally succeeding—who wants to go back to what it felt like? It’s resistance because you believe erroneously there is a correlation between your moods and the quality of writing you will produce when in fact there is no such connection, and you will never be in a good mood to write until you start writing. It’s resistance because you’re a bad mother and should be devoting your precious time to your children; it’s resistance because you’re a bad father and should do more around the house so your wife won’t feel like a bad mother; it’s resistance because you could be making money at a real job. In an essay called “Just Still Writing,” the author Ann Tyler talks about starting out as a writer while trying to raise a family. Another mother asks her at the playground, “Have you found work yet? Or are you still just writing.”
Yes. The “just writing syndrome.” It’s resistance because of the dismissive way that people, and sometimes we, see ourselves in this literary vocation unless we happen to be making bundles of money writing a mega-commercial best seller. It’s resistance because we should be getting in shape at the gym—or better shape. After all, we know that working out equals x-amount of results. But . . . what does writing equal? Certainly not x-amount of results! In fact, is there any other profession that takes such a gamble on productivity? If you’re an electrician, chances are you reach a level of skill that you can count on. Likewise for a doctor. Even a musician gets his scales down. But writing? One day you write well, the next poorly. Let’s revise that: one sentence you write masterfully, the next is so clunky that its verbosity could choke an entire city to death. Talk about the uncertainty principle. Writers live it every day. No wonder we’re so full of resistance.
So what’s needed to endure? Because I don’t know about you, but I plan on doing this until they carry me out or I start talking to invisible parakeets. How exactly, I ask myself, have I kept going for more than thirty years in the face of all the obstacles? I can tell you it’s not by having success. I once thought that if only I published a story in a respected literary journal I’d feel like a “real writer.” And then after that, my validation requirement was upped to publishing a book. And then it was two books. And then it was prizes. And then it was . . . well, it doesn’t matter because all that happened and I still found myself feeling at times just as paralyzed as I did that first day in workshop when my story was axed. There was a bad review, or a rejection on a new novel, or being dropped by an agent, or envy stopping me dead in my tracks. It didn’t matter. The point is that you don’t get to a place in this business where your confidence is so great that it outweighs your resistance. You’re not grandfathered in so much that you never have doubts.
The antidote to this? Besides perhaps meditation, anti-depressants, exercise, a supportive family who will indulge you within limits but remind you of your self worth outside of writing? Reset yourself.
Get yourself to a place where you have no internet. Short of that, turn off your internet by downloading the virtually free software program called Freedom that will do it for you.
Don't show anyone a draft until you’re ready. They’re called drafts for a reason. Your eyes and your eyes alone should be on that draft before someone becomes your audience. When you’ve taken it as far as you can go, when you’re really finished incubating and know you need help to break the logjam, show it to someone you trust to be honest.
Write in the morning before you get self-conscious and your critical faculty runs amok with nasty little messages such as you can’t write a plot to save your life, your parents/friends/lovers will hate you for betraying them, you can’t write humor because the last time you tried your workshop members thought you were depressed. That is, catch yourself off-guard by writing in your journal under the guise that the writing is only for you. Performance anxiety goes away when you eliminate the audience.
Give yourself deadlines as if “you had a real job.” Make yourself stick to them. Pick someone, a friend or family member, to enforce and reward them.
Forget about your children, elderly parents, hungry spouse, demanding cats. They don’t exist.
Accept loneliness. Because you WILL be lonely. But hear this: you’ll be lonelier if you don’t write. When you’re not writing, you feel hollow inside, even when you’re surrounded by people. Simply put, there’s the loneliness of the work, and the loneliness without it. You have to endure one to overcome the other.
Realize that you’re writing even when you’re not. It’s called wool gathering. Lying on the couch daydreaming, mulling over a story in the shower, waiting to pick up your kids from school, spacing out in a staff meeting. Give yourself credit for all these.
Stop for the day in the middle of a sentence. Closure—completing a chapter is satisfying—but shuts the door for immediately rebooting your work the next day.
Keep multiple drafts going. When you get stuck on one, switch to another. Those drafts are gold; they may look like lead—or be leaden—but as with my experience on that first workshop story, taking out something again after time has passed will often be the right moment to make a breakthrough. Expect to write ten or twenty times what you use. Don’t be embarrassed about your obsessions—they’re your best allies in this endeavor.
Time, time. Too much for a writer is as bad as too little. When I quit teaching for a while and thought I’d be a full time writer, the pressure to produce, the urge to linger over every sentence, the self-consciousness of having my whole identity be WRITER smothered my drive, much like a hovering parent can stifle a child. Every paragraph appeared to suffer from frog bloat. At the other end—too little—you will need to stand up for time to write because writing—being puny by nature in its gestation stages—will constantly be pushed to the back of the bus otherwise. And speaking of time, patience is fine but waiting is not. That is, waiting to hear whether your story will be published, waiting for a call from an agent about your novel, waiting for results of a contest, waiting for your friend to finish reading a draft. Start something else immediately. That’s all you can control. Time will fly by.
Finally, figure out why you want to write in the first place and why, as the saying goes, you cannot not write. For me, elusive and grandiose as it may have been, it was that I wanted create something of beauty that was somehow an answer to pain. That’s still good enough to keep me going.
I’ll leave you with two quotations: One is from Jean Rhys, who wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea: “Listen to me. I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are trickles like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.”
The other quotation is from my wife. She has to repeat it fairly often, but it works: “Be nice to yourself, and keep writing.”