August 20, 2012

The Truth About a Writing Life . . .

It’s 4:21 a.m.  There’s a pain behind my right eye.

The damn thing’s woken me up again.  My novel-in-progress (or lack of progress), that is.

Because even though I’ve published three novels and been writing professionally for over twenty years, I have no idea how to write this novel.  

There are fragments.  Scenes I absolutely adore.  Characters ready to burst out of my brain, Aliens-style.  But I don’t know where these bits belong.  Why they belong.  How they fit into the whole.

I wish some writer could give me a neat, EASY answer.  

For now, I’m grateful for those who are honest about the hard parts of this process.  

While there are authors who make this novel-writing thing look as easy as throwing a cake together (apologies to cake bakers), I appreciate those who share the sweaty, anxiety-ridden truth about the messy, mysterious, maddening process.

There’s Jacqueline Woodson . . .

She wrote:  “You’re writing, you’re coasting, and you’re thinking, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever written, and it’s coming so easily, and these characters are so great.’ You put it aside for whatever reason, and you open it up a week later and the characters have turned to cardboard and the book has completely fallen apart. That’s the moment of truth for every writer: Can I go on from here and make this book into something? I think it separates the writers from the nonwriters. And I think it’s the reason a lot of people have that unfinished manuscript around the house, that albatross,” which Laurie Halse Anderson shared on this blog post. 

Later, Jacqueline Woodson tweeted, “My book is falling apart. I should keep writing but grabbing a towel & heading down to the water. Maybe the answer will ebb in with the tide.”

There’s Sherman Alexie, who, during a talk in front of a thousand people at an S.C.B.W.I. conference, admitted to waking in the middle of the night with insomnia because of his struggle with the words. 

There’s Sharon Creech, whose books I so admire for their simplicity and their heart.  She shared this wonderful photo of the reams of paper/vision and revision/perhaps 4 a.m. wake up calls that were required to produce her latest effort.

 This is what she wrote about that photo on her blog:

three years of work
six drafts
of one book:
The Great Unexpected

(due out 4 September)

By the time
I reach this phase
it's a bit like having been pregnant
for ten months
maybe eleven

and I am thinking
I did the best I could do
I love it

Thanks God for honest writers! 

Because at 4:19 a.m. (It’s 5:33 a.m. now) with this pain behind my right eye that’s slowly fading, it feels like I may never find my way through this elusive tangle of words. 

But I’ll gently remind myself to breath:  “Breath, damn it!”

I’ll remember I’ve been in this uncomfortable place before.  (It’s why I hesitate mightily before beginning each new novel.)

When the book is finally written and rewritten – because it will be – I’ll relish the feeling, no matter how fleeting . . . until it’s time to write the next novel.  And the next.

And it’s all exactly as it should be -- this crazy, wonderful writing life.  Even the messy, uncomfortable bits.  Maybe especially those bits because they are what make us human.  

Back to it now . . . because sometimes the only way is to write your way though.


Terry Joseph said...

Very interesting. Kept me reading, although I'm glad it wasn't at 4:00 a.m. :)
If you're in Hampton Roads, we could get together. I know Sue from ... hmm, CNU Writers' Conference, I think. She lives about 5 miles from me. I used to attend one of her groups, in Williamsburg, but I fell off the planet.

Terry Joseph said...

Oops. If I'd read your bio, I would have seen that you write children's and YA. :)

Wild About Words said...

Thanks for your comment, Terry. I don't live locally. Met Sue when she lived in FL. We'll have to share a virtual cup of coffee then. :)

Wild About Words said...

Author Jo Knowles offers terrific writerly wisdom on her blog today: (Especially meaningful if you're a runner, too.)

Jen Swanson said...

Donna, You always seem to write the best blog posts - just when I need them. I, too, am struggling to work on a wip that a few months ago, I just couldn't put down. The characters were talking in my head, the scenes were moving so fast, I could hardly keep up. Now, I sit down, I wait politely for the characters to talk to me. Nothing. Where are they? Probably sulking in a corner of my brain I don't even know exists (they are pre-teens after all and I have been ignoring them). Ah, life.. how it interferes with our best laid plans - and plots. Good luck to you as you search for your words. As for me, I'm plying my characters with chocolate chip cookies maybe that will help. (Let's hope they don't get mad and send them to my hips!)

Wild About Words said...


I plied my characters with chocolate chip cookies today, too! (Okay, I actually plied my hips with them, but that's not important now.)

You've had a lot going on lately. I'm sure when there's space in your brain, your characters will come stomping back. And you'll be right there to welcome them back.

Good luck,

Mirka Breen said...

Your post reminded me of my grandma’s favorite saying:
"Why should it be easy when it can be hard?"

Pippa said...

Thanks for the comfort - so good to be in this together.

Here's a book recommendation to help get you through. It's helped me and is as good as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (really!)

It's 'A Year of Writing Dangerously' by Barbara Abercrombie


Wild About Words said...

Mirka, those are some wise words from your grandma. Thanks for sharing them.

Pippa, that book sounds great. I'm getting it now. Your blog is great, by the way.

Lynne Kelly said...

Nice to know we're in good company when we're staring at a blank screen!

I was avoiding my WIP for a couple weeks for some reason; all I can figure out is that I'm afraid it won't turn out as awesome on the page as it is in my head. But I've been getting back to it, a little at a time, reminding myself that no one will read this draft.

Anonymous said...

Only one manuscript about the house? Only one useless lump of printed garbage? I wish.
I've got four of the things and they are no good.
They contain some good stuff and even some good ideas, but they are either mawkishly sentimental or characters having a good rant.
And what looks like gold on the page one day turns into coal dust overnight.
Boo Hoo!

Wild About Words said...

Lynne, I completely understand. There are so many internal blocks to our writing. May I recommend a wonderful book -- The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend by Ralph Keyes. I found it inspiring and uplifting.

Wild About Words said...

patwoodblogging, I am surrounded by piles of pages -- bits and characters and ideas and partially finished novels and completely finished unpublishable novels. They somehow make their way into my current novels. They seep in. It's all part of the messy, miraculous process. I found the book Story by Robert McKee to be helpful to learn how to structure the bits into a workable whole. Good luck to you!