The Authority to Write

Dear You,

I am writing my book again. This is the third time I have written it and the third year of working with it. In draft one, the story went in one direction, took a turn toward another in draft two, and now seems to be going back to the original idea with some tweaks.

Having spent some time now writing other stories, I’ve come to find that this is a pattern for me. Three drafts is what it always takes (so far) for me to get to the story I am sure I want to write. The first draft is always a mess of spewed words, snippets of images and conversation that won’t go away but don’t seem to have any purpose, all stitched together by sheer will of I MUST FINISH THIS THING. The second draft is always out of left field; I’ve read the first draft, confused myself and what I think I’m trying to say, so I write something that, using sound-ish logic, works plot-wise but reads like shit and leaves all the characters’ needs and wants aside. This one is stitched together by sheer will of I MUST MAKE THIS MAKE SENSE. And after reading it, it never makes sense, ever.

So then we get to the third draft. I have usually let a gulf of time pass, not out of some smart reason of resting or allowing time to help things gel in my mind, but usually because the second draft is such a train wreck, it hurts to have to think about putting another draft back together again. There are always casualties in the third draft. Whole plot lines are re-worked, characters invented, scenes I liked before disappeared into the upside-down to happily never be retrieved again. I know this will happen and because I expect it, I dread it.

But another thing happens after I’ve read the second draft and absorbed the mortal blow of its exquisite shittiness on my level of confidence as a writer and human. The story begins to write itself. Once I get up the courage to actually sit down and do it, that is.

It’s an amazing feeling; one of those times that writers talk about when they say that the characters are telling them the story, that a “muse” is whispering into their ears, etc., etc. It really does feel like magic and it’s the whole point of doing the work because it’s as exhilarating as the feeling of publication or even a comment from a reader saying “I loved this.” It’s hit a nerve and it’s correct and you know it.

While I love the idea of magic and do bask in the feeling of mystical fairy dust when this happens, it’s, sadly, not magic. Or any kind of natural artistic talent finally rearing its head after all this goddamn time. It’s simply the fruits of labor. It’s the recognition of work.

I have spent years in critique groups with writers in various stages of their craft. I have seen heavy hitters come in with work that sings and watched them sweat as we peons flip through their pages. I’ve seen newbies come in excited and confident and seen the little flicker of hurt in their eyes when the critique really begins. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer ask an old timer, “But how do you do that?” As in, how do you weave in backstory so seamlessly? How do you come up with characters that read readers minds? How do you write a story that reads like a secret being shared only with you?

Hilariously and tragically, the newcomer always think they’re reading a first draft when they ask this question. It’s never a first draft. It might be a first draft of a complete rewrite but it’s not your typical “I woke up like this” draft. (And if it is, then they are in the presence of someone who either has been at the craft diligently for years and have learned to write a draft the way they flex a well-toned muscle OR that mother fucker really is magic.)

What they’re really asking is: How do I gain that level of authority in my work? How do I make it read like I actually know what I’m doing? Like I’m a goddamn literary force to be reckoned with?

Answer: You toil away until it does and you are.

Just like the story that finally reveals itself, gaining that level of authority in writing takes the kind of sweat and tears that must be suffered with time and diligence. It requires taking your dedication to the writing craft from a giddily stupid first draft stage, through that shitty second draft stage which will beg you to give it up, and into the third draft stage where you can come to your craft clear-eyed, seasoned, and ready to work.

And that’s just the overhaul we’re talking about. At this point, I can predict that it will take me three drafts to get a story in the right direction. But it takes god knows how many more to get it just right. And it never, ever feels just right. It feels right enough to send it out into the world.

There’s different tricks to getting the story right, getting the words on the page, discovering what exactly it is you’re trying to say, just as there are different paths in writing careers. One person toils longer than another before feeling validated in their craft. Another feels validated even if they weren’t seeking it. Others never feel validation, even when there are other literary heroes validating their work on a regular basis. And none of it matters anyway; while respect from peers is nice, none of us followed the rabbit trail of a story idea solely because we thought it might lead to someone we admire admiring us. We do it because it’s interesting and fun and we want to.

Waiting for the authority to write, for goddamn literary hero stardom to shine upon you, is like waiting for magic to happen. It might — but it’s faster to simply sit down, take a deep breath, and do the work over and over again. Instead of magic, it will feel like nothing at all. Just another day where you’ve written your words, submitted your stories, until you can look back and see the full breadth of a body of work, and how it ebbs and flows with practice. Maybe you’ll recognize your authority then. (Maybe, but unlikely.) You’re too busy doing the work.

Authority may come, but it will not announce itself. Rather, it will be a sudden awareness, much how a story’s ending is a conundrum one moment and finished the next. It won’t feel like you’ve arrived even when you already have. It will always take longer than you think.

 

Allowing the Subconscious to Speak

Dear you,

I have spent the last two weeks writing as if it was National Novel Writing Month. For those who are not aware, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is where writers commit to putting 55,000 words of a novel to a page in just one month’s time. A complete novel for an adult audience usually reaches 80,000 to 100,000 words total but the goal is to just write fast without second-guessing and to prove to those second-guessers that yes, you do have time to write your story so just go do it, damnit.

I have never participated in it before and have really never had the desire to. All power to people who can finish whole drafts of novels in just a few months time. But I have always been a slow writer. I like to take my time with things and let the story unfold naturally, even in a first draft. I have found that when I write too fast, I leave intuition behind and shove myself into a corner that then has to be dug out with a buck knife.

Outlining a first draft has always been anathema to me. It’s a paradox I can never shake out. What happens to a character in a story is based on who the character is and who the character is is based on what happens to the character in the story. How else could I discover who these people are unless I just let them loose on the page for a bit? It takes sketching; your subconscious has to be allowed to speak.

But I am gleefully on a second draft. The subconscious has had literally two years to speak at length and I am now at the let’s do this, git-r-done stage of I just need to finish this fucking thing. 

So when I reached 50k last month and felt appropriately overwhelmed and then read Writer’s Digest’s latest article on the benefits of Nano-ing, the thread found its hole, the bullet its target and I thought: This time, I will good god damn do it. I have my outline. I know where the story needs to go. I just need to cut out the procrastination and just get it there. Advanced blessings to the people who have agreed to read this harried mess.

So I have spent the last two weeks writing at what I consider an unsustainably speedy pace. I get up two hours before I go to work, and because I am still a slow writer by nature, I usually have to finish up the word quota when I come home. I have neglected to wash my clothing. I have neglected to wash my hair, which has actually been a positive side effect (thank you curls.) I walk through rooms of my house in circles because I can’t ever seem to remember what brought me to the room in the first place. I have cried. I have argued with my poor husband who’s just trying to keep up.

All of this combined with the fact that I am doing this alone right now. NaNoWriMo takes place on a single month so that writers across the nation can make the pact together, check in with other, cheer each other on. And official NaNoWriMo is actually next month. Being the true stubborn person I am, it’s no surprise that I chose to take on this kind of word count without the benefit of thousands of other people who can appreciate the sheer torment of this goal.

Torment aside, there have been some big positives. I am moving through the story without doubting the intuition that gave me my outline in the first place. Every time I pass a monumental word count, I remember that I will finish this draft just like I finished the draft before it and the stories before that. I remember that if I just trust the process and stay the course, I will get to my own personal promised land. And sooner rather than later, thanks to this nutty goal.

But my subconscious is screaming. If I want to stay this course and stick with this discomfort, then it’s time to make some necessary adjustments.

Self-care during drafting is easily lost in the rubble of trashed pages and tears. We want to push forward, to get it all out, to finish it finish it finish it damnit, just finish the damned thing. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. And maybe we don’t want to think about anything else. But mid-way through this month, I feel as if I have reached the end of my words. Each day they get harder and harder to come by.

So I am renewing my commitment to self-care. Nothing demanding; let’s not walk into that trap. But simple things. I will stretch. I will make my bed. Eat some vegetables and decline the donuts that some demon from hell keeps putting in the work breakroom. Even a simple morning meditation has the power to recharge the most exhausted minds.

So future fellow Nano-ers: Make your outlines but don’t underestimate your need for rest. Check in with yourself. Feel the ground under your feet. Live with love in every breath. Allow your subconscious to speak. And when it speaks, listen closely.

 

The Much That Comes From The Little

Dear You,

I have entered the phase when the wonder of our new city fades and is replaced by the need to get down to business. This week, I settled accounts with a new bank, re-allocated our budget, and my car informed me (thank you, Prius) that it needed an oil change. Oh, the fun of finding a new mechanic. I now have benefits at my new job which means I can put off finding a new doctor no longer. And just in time because I have come down with an illness I suspect has everything to do with the allergens being blown around that my sinuses are not used to.

Apologies to my friend, Travis — I will now probably never find out what the inside of the Nashville Parthenon looks like because I am back to business as usual. Time only for work, writing, and the books to be read and beer to be drunk when the working and writing is done. I’d like to say I’ll keep exploring, but let’s be reasonable. I am already tired.

Coincidentally, the re-write of my manuscript reached firmly past 50,000 words this weekend. It’s always exciting to get to that point because it feels as if the book is real, it really will be written and finished, it really will exist in the world. But with that 50,000 word marker comes the issue I am now facing in my city — it’s time for business. Gone is the excitement and wonder over a fresh start on a project. Now there are loose ends to tie up, second acts to muddle through, middles that sag like a belly dragging on the ground. For me, it becomes a slog after 50K.

This is not unlike how I envision the rest of this first year in Nashville to go.

Finding the mechanic and settling the bank accounts and feeling myself become more and more ill as I contemplate how it might look to have to call in sick on week three of my new job got me just a little overwhelmed this week. At one point, I realized my gas tank was on E and I had no convenient gas stop I could summon up in my head because I’ve only filled up once since being here (really, once!) and that was at the Kroger miles from our house in the other direction, which is convenient when buying groceries but not at all convenient when late for work.

All these small things — knowing where to find the cheap gas, knowing a reliable mechanic, knowing what restaurant or pub won’t be full to the ceiling on a Saturday afternoon — they add up to require a vast amount of brain power every day. Every day that we stay here, I have to figure out another thing I didn’t already know. And for someone like me who thrives on routine and stability, the unfamiliarity of every moment doubles the exhaustion.

And so it is in 50K territory. Where the beginning of the book is an adventure, the middle is a struggle. You know your players, know what you need to do, know where the story should end up, but shit if you know how to to accomplish any of it. There is a gap in nearly every decision you need to make. Each scene becomes a struggle because at this point, you are conducting business — not running around marveling at how wonderful all of this is. You can see the imperfect bits of your story so clearly, just as you come to discover the issues in your new city — what streets are safe to walk down, which roads will have gridlock when you leave work, and where the two for ones are on any given day.

They have to be discovered, usually through trial and error. You write some and you cut some. You follow the outline until you reach a dead end and you re-outline. You do the hard work of re-building your life and making yourself at home in it.

Every day, I am a little savvier about my new home. Every day, I have to think less about how to get to and from wherever I am going. Every day, I add more to the story and push myself through the sagging middle until I can find a plot point to hang on, a character I recognize, a beautiful sentence in a sea of ugly ones. And none of this works without a little trust in the process.

I imagine myself a year from now, the handful of friends I have here multiplied to a handful of groups. I imagine the shortcuts I will take to escape traffic. I imagine strolling down the various streets and running into acquaintance after acquaintance, waving at everyone, smiling in return, and basking in the joy of feeling at home. I imagine this story completed, edited, and submitted, while I rack my brains on a new, frustrating excursion.

Because if I look back two months ago on the day we moved here wide-eyed in wonder and then two years ago when I drove home from work with my heart in my throat and just the tiniest glow of the story flickering in my mind, I can easily see how much has come from so little.

It takes time to get from Point A to Point B. And taking that time requires trust that it will all be worth it. But I have always been a hopeful person. Writing, such as living, is an exercise in faith.