Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been writing and editing and hemming and hawing over this rough draft of a novel that I started two years ago. Most of the time, it’s rough going. It’s only fulfilling when I look back on what I’ve accomplished, but the act of it is rough. Even still, the actual act of writing something creatively (not for a blog) – be it fiction or non fiction – still amazes me. Here’s why:
What I write today is not what I would have written yesterday.
Let me give you an example. Yesterday, I was working on a scene that was new to me. It hadn’t existed in the story so far, and it was new material. I was creating it out of some far reaching part of my mind and I had momentum. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to finish the scene. But it was five o clock, and my son bounded through the door and I knew I would have to put it on pause for the rest of the night because I was busy helping with dinner, talking about what my son and hubby did that day, and just generally winding down.
Today, I’ll continue that scene, but it won’t be from the same part of my mind I accessed yesterday. The scene will be slightly different and the words will be not what they would have been yesterday. What I write today could make the difference between good and better…or maybe the trajectory will be the other way. Maybe yesterday was on track for greatness and today it’s going to take a turn towards the worst. And yet, I’ll never know which is which. Isn’t that crazy?
Somehow, I always find the answers
I was complaining recently about figuring out “the logistics” – you know, the stuff that makes your story make sense? Sure I can put two characters in a scene where they’re on the moon and they’re talking about which is better – cow’s milk or almond milk…and you as the reader can suspend reality and believe that, but at some point you’re going to want to know a little more context. Why are they on the moon? Why is that such an important conversation? How did they get to this point? Can they breathe? Are they floating? Sure, you don’t need to know EVERYTHING about everything. Books aren’t meant to be instructional manuals (unless it is literally an instructional manual). But you need to know enough to keep suspending reality for the remainder of the novel.
Well, for a while I was having issues with the logistics. I had come up with a story where I knew vaguely what the problem was – a grand social problem. But I couldn’t figure out what the physical, real life, I’m-gonna-do-this-thing-over-here-to-fix-this-thing-over-here situation was. Which is kind of HUGE. I mean, really, what are they all doing if I can’t nail that down? And this has been plaguing me since I started writing this draft two years ago.
Finally, within the last couple days, I’ve been able to brainstorm and theorize and finally put into words what it is they’re trying to do. It didn’t come in some muse-like fashion where I just shouted “EUREKA!!!” No. It was more like a series of what ifs that I kept asking myself that finally led to the answer. And that’s what I think is so amazing. That you can start a story and not know any answers, and then through some twist of fate, create the answers as you go.
Everything is the worst thing ever…until I look back.
This holds true not only as a writer, but in my life generally. Here’s what I mean. When you’re writing the first draft of anything, the best thing you can do is shut out all self-hate and doubt and just let the words flow. They could be the worst words you’ve ever strung together (strung? stringed?). It could make absolutely no sense. But you have to get the crappy stuff out there in order to find the diamonds. This is the motto of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month…which is this November, by the way). Write with abandon. Don’t focus on the quality, focus on the quantity. Do NOT edit. That is for second and third drafts. The first draft is meant for twirling imaginations and random thoughts and cave-man like writing abilities. No one will see this draft so do whatever the heck you want. So for my first draft, I did just that. I didn’t worry about if it made sense. Some days when I was tired I literally checked out and just kept pecking away at the keyboard until I hit my word count goal.
So when it came time to edit, I was preparing myself. I kept telling myself, “Now remember, you did some pretty reckless things with that first draft that you’re now going to have to clean up. Who knows, maybe you’ll keep 20% of it. Maybe only 10%.” And I was steeling myself for that fact as I started to re-read my draft. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely cringe-worthy parts. I can see clearly where I was tired or I was overthinking something, or I became overly verbose where I could have been short and to the point.
But more often than not, I’m quite surprised at what I wrote. Not only is some of it quite eloquent…but it’s interesting. Sometimes I look upon a scene and question whether or not I actually wrote that or some friendly little elves came in the night and plunked that page in there without my knowledge. And in those moments, I do pat myself on the back and think, “See…maybe you’re not just a hack after all! Maybe you can do this.”
And as I mentioned, this is true in most parts of my life. One example stands out in a big way. A couple years back, I trained for and completed Ragnar – a 200 mile event where you and 11 other people compete in a relay style running event. For my part, I was responsible for 15 of those miles over a 24 hour period. I had never done a team running event before and I was supremely scared of the idea that I could let others down doing something I had loved so much. I had run 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, and even one full marathon. But I was always only ever competing against myself. If my time was slower than usual, I might beat myself up, but no one else depended on my time. Ragnar was the opposite of that. I couldn’t start running until my team mate handed off a “baton” (like a slap bracelet thing) to me, and the person after me couldn’t start until I handed off the baton to them. Now, my team wasn’t trying to get any medals, the point was to do this as a team and support each other no matter what. I understood that. And even so, I was REALLY freaked out about my parts. I wasn’t a fast runner. And what if I had to stop and walk? Would they be disappointed? What if I was slower than what they estimated and the vans were waiting too long for me and that threw off the schedule for the rest of the team? It was very stressful at the time.
Well, it was my turn. My first run was four miles. I had to climb this hellish hill and ended up walking at one point in time. I berated myself throughout. I cursed at how slow I was being. I mentally screamed as I saw someone else pass me. At the end, I handed off the baton and ran away from my teammates. I found a tree to sit under (my whole run was in the sun and I needed shade) and I started bawling! I just knew in my head that I had let them down and I was so embarrassed! How did I think I belonged on that team? Yes, I had trained hard, but I should have known it wasn’t enough.
My teammates ran over to me and were very concerned. I thought they were just being nice. They asked what was wrong and I just kept spewing, “I’m sorry! Ugh, I’m sorry! I had to walk at one point. I’m sorry to keep you waiting!” I couldn’t see their looks of shock because I was crying into my dry fit t shirt. But finally, one of them said, “No! Jamie, you did awesome! You beat your estimated time by FOUR MINUTES.” I looked up at them and started trying to process what they were saying. I looked over at my dear friend who was nodding in agreement. “We literally just got here with the van. We almost missed your finish…we didn’t think it would be so soon.”
I’d love to say that I started laughing and all was good, but I was in way too much of a tizzy, so I simply nodded through tears and asked, “Really? Oh.” They helped me to the van, and I remained quiet for the next twenty minutes, just trying to calm myself down, but that moment was something I’ll never forget. I had such fear, such doubt, such hatred towards myself that I couldn’t even see how well I was doing. The next two runs I had were almost as nerve wracking as the first, but with those two, I found myself continuing to run faster than I had in training, and I managed to shut out the negative voices and focus on the positive. Our team did great and it was seriously one of the hardest and yet most rewarding events I’ve ever done.
Is it a coincidence that five months later I finally worked up the courage to write my first novel? I think not. It was this super hard lesson that finally allowed me the courage to keep going even when I thought I would be a huge failure. I only wished I would have learned that sooner.
So yeah…that’s what’s weird about writing. And life in general.
p.s. This post got SUPER long. Ha! Oh well.