Monday, August 29, 2011

Why What We Do Is Hard

You know it. I know it. And very often, we start to let the difficulty of writing give birth to insecurities that plague our whole existence. It isn't bad enough, apparently, to consider giving up on writing; we must also degrade ourselves into believing we are bad at life in general.

The funny thing is, this problem seems to extend well beyond the glorious milestones of representation and publication. Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, admits to her insecurities on her blog, here. Jody Hedlund, award winning author, shares many of hers here. And the Authoress of Miss Snark's First Victim confesses her own fears here.

I recently read a Slate article by Michael Agger which shed some light on this widespread issue of self-doubt in writers. In it, Agger explains what should be a very simple and obvious fact to those of us who write: writing is hard. Here are some highlights from that article:

"Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living... Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task." (Ronald Kellogg, Professional Writing Expertise)

It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance... Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as "knowledge-crafting." In that state, the writer's brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience. (Link)

I don't know about you, but I find these passages to be both comforting and liberating. Writing is a highly solitary craft, and when you hold yourself to a high standard, it is quite easy to become discouraged; you rarely have someone next to you all the time to pat you on the back and say, "Hey, you're doing just fine! This is hard stuff, you know!" And the moment you indulge the whiny little voice in your head complaining about how difficult writing is, you start to feel like a wimp.

But isn't it nice to hear someone else verify that, yes, this is in fact a complicated thing you're trying to do?

It's easy to start feeling like a dunce when your work isn't measuring up to what you want it to be, but sometimes you have to remind yourself that it's okay to be where you are right now

That doesn't mean we should cut ourselves any slack in what we expect from our (slightly overtaxed) brains. It just means we shouldn't start allowing ourselves to feel inadequate just because it takes us awhile to get to where we want to be. Because if we continue to work at it, we will continue to make progress. And despite the insecurities, despite the difficulty of it all, writing is in fact very rewarding work. Otherwise, why in blazes would we be doing it?

Take this advice from Lois Peterson: "The more you write, the easier it gets; the more you write, the better it gets. So just write the damn thing!"

What about you? Regardless of where you are in your writing journey, do you feel plagued by insecurities from time to time? How do you cope with them? And what do you do when you discover that writing is indeed very hard?

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.