Thursday, August 4, 2011

Manuscripts Are Like Children

Happy Thursday to you!

I am pleased to say that last week's begging and pleading worked out very well. The readers who volunteered to take SUNCHILD to their bosoms and thump all the hiccups and burps from her tender little frame were more plentiful and talented than I could have ever hoped. It delights me to know that she is in such capable hands.

Of course, she is only in those hands because I have at long last relinquished her from my own. Which brings me to the point I'd like to discuss (on the metaphor I've already started, because it works pretty well): What do you do with yourself when your baby goes into the world for the first time?

Now, I've never given birth to a human child before. I haven't given birth to an animal child either, although I've found myself in the position of mothering two different baby-beasts in my adult life.  But I have now conceived, carried, birthed, and nursed five full novels into maturity, two of which (and now three) have left me to go striding out across the wide world to seek their fortunes.

I confess this loss to have a strange effect on me.

The first thing that happens once I tie up all the fragmented ends of a young manuscript--brush its hair, you know, and tidy its outfit and wash its face--and send it off into someone else's care is that I feel a miraculous sense of relief. The thing is done! I think to myself, breathing my first deep breath of freedom and standing up from my computer to see if my numb limbs still function properly. I can do anything I want! I can watch a movie! I can eat a sandwich! I can change out of my ratty t-shirt and go out on the town!

But the moment this sense of possibility breaks over me with all its brilliant rays, I remember the list that has been accumulating for months as I have inched, slothlike, toward this stage of manuscript near-completion. The list includes things like, "Pay rent" and "Buy dog food" and "Wash your hair," and it goes on for pages and pages--which are of course scattered over my entire apartment, on various scraps of trash or folded post-its, and which could not all be located even if I had the motivation to try. So my raptures are extinguished as quickly as they ignited, and I merely replace one ratty t-shirt with another and set to finding and carrying out the list.

By the time the list has been reasonably reduced, though, I find that something strange has happened to me. I no longer have the urge to watch a movie or make a sandwich. My desire to wear something socially acceptable and go out in public has vanished. I can think of only one thing I truly want to do: Write.

This stage of the process is called MANUSCRIPT WITHDRAWAL. During this stage, a writer experiences selective memory loss with regard to the manuscript they have released into the wild: they can no longer recall the feeling of murderous frustration they experienced when gazing upon that stubborn section that refused to comply to their wishes; they have no memory whatsoever of the grueling headache that plagued them during their last week of revisions; most remarkably of all, they cannot imagine what would have possessed them to daydream of time spent away from the project, when the only thing worth doing in the world was--and IS--spending time on that manuscript!

I have felt symptoms of this illness coming on in the last few days, usually manifested in periods spent staring listlessly at my desk, wondering if I should do something, but not knowing what that something might be. And I know how it goes. Before long, I'll delude myself into thinking I want that annoying, time-devouring child back.

Which of course I do. 

But I still had better not waste this precious time I have now. So. What do YOU do while you take breaks from manuscripts? Start another project? Take some intentional time away from writing? Fuel yourself into productivity by means of bribery, threats, or coercion?

And if you have no manuscript, but you have other kinds of babies (humans, animals, chia-pets, etc.), how do you get some healthy distance from them, and refresh yourself while you are apart?

I want to know.


  1. I find it kind of emotional to send off my ms into the world -- but I try to stay focused on writing and just move on to the next project. A writer writes, right?

  2. It's interesting to see this, since I am usually coming at this from the other angle: "Your baby is in good hands. Please stop being a helicopter parent. I am not going to send your manuscript back to you mangled and abused." And I agree with Andrea, I encourage my authors to focus on other aspects of the project, at least while it is in editing, or to start some other writing project, even if it is just blogging.

  3. This mindset is quite foreign to me. I'm always eager to let other people rip my manuscript to shreds! It might be a guy thing: we build stuff to withstand punishment, and then we watch as it gets destroyed! If it stands up against the elements, we celebrate with massive whoops, hollers, fist-pumping, chest-thumping, and occasionally a celebratory cigar. It it fails, we figure out why and then fix it.

  4. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago when I was in the same place. I end up feeling at loose ends and stir crazy because I want to be working but I've got nothing to actively work on. I ended up reading a lot and dabbling in other stories before finally turning myself over to edits on the current WIP.

  5. Wait... breaks from manuscripts?? I usually have the next one halfway written before I finish the current project. Because my reward to myself for finishing a book is to get to write another one :P
    I can't help it. Once in a while I take a day off (like today) to just be a goof and let it go, but tonight, I'll still end up cracking open the laptop and putting down a few more words.

  6. I suppose that's when writing a PhD has its benefits: there's always something to work on when I'm not writing. Or a garden that needs, well, gardening (where did that jungle of weeds come from?), or baby blankets that need knitting (how is my best friend due in 5wks already??), and so on. I find myself rotating through projects because it's impossible to do them all at once!

  7. Andrea: I agree. The best and highest definition of a writer seems to me to be, "one who writes." But I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who gets a little emotional at the first parting! :)

    Katie: It's great to hear your perspective, too. I laughed really loud at your assertion that this qualifies as helicopter parenting. You're definitely right. The best thing to do during this stage is to calm down and focus your energies on other writings.

    Giles: I love it. I love how different guys are from girls. That's hilarious--but also a good lesson to learn. I need to think more like a guy: Write it to withstand a good walloping, and fix it if it falls down. And here I am talking babies... Ha!

    JEM: I think I'll be following your lead soon enough. Much as I try to focus on other projects, I am a one-thing-at-a-time kind of girl. It'll be back to the wip for round 2 edits before long, most likely. :)

    Lily: You're a machine! I'm so slow to move on--even as a reader! I need lots of closure before I start something new. But I wish I could do like you do. Good for you. Keep getting down those words.

    Chera: You have weeds!!? Oh, I am so jealous. It's too hot and dry here this summer for weeds--or anything else! Even the trees are starting to die. :( If it keeps this up another summer, I may be packing my bags to come join you in Scotland! But seriously. I am continually amazed at how well you balance all the things you do. Well done, dear, well done.