You can’t play music well if you’ve never played it poorly. I don’t care what parents of prodigies say, no one picks up an instrument for the first time and plays no wrong notes.
I was discussing my writing problems the other day with two writing friends and had a mild epiphany: this writer’s “block”, or whatever it is, is the same thing I experienced for so many years that I actually gave up on writing fiction. I have folders full of notes and starts of novels, middles of novels, bits of novels that never came to life. I couldn’t make them catch fire and growing discouraged I abandoned them and decided I’d just stick with writing creative non-fiction. I gave up my life-long dream of writing novels because I believed I didn’t have it in me to write them.
All those novels were alive, vibrant, important, cool, fun, charged, and insistent INSIDE MY HEAD. But I couldn’t get them out in the same condition. What came out of my head were dead versions of my stories. Stagnant, poorly written, boring, nowhere versions of the living stories inside of me.
I realized that what I’ve been experiencing ever since finishing Winter; Cricket and Grey is the same thing as before when I told my friend Kele that it’s like the conduit between what’s in my head and my pen/laptop is broken. That’s how it felt before.
In 2009, when I finally fixed that conduit and wrote the first draft of “Jane Doe” it felt incredible! I was finally doing the thing I’ve always supposed to have been doing and I knew it because – well – how do you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing? It’s hard to quantify or describe that feeling and I imagine it’s not the same or all people.
I just felt right in my own skin and in my own head.
So how did I fix that conduit and how can I fix it again?
In the most simplistic terms it was all about letting go. Letting go of expectation, doubt, expectation, pressure, interference from others, expectations of others, and letting go of control. The first time it happened resulted in chaos and a manuscript that, five years later, is still in a state of chaos. Maybe it always will be. That’s not as important as I used to think it was. That release of control let the stuff in my head come out and live on the page. I had to release it in raw form. I had to let the stories and characters come out imperfect because that’s how I got the power to change them and edit them into something better. They had to get to the page pure before I could make them better.
Humans are messy beings. Their stories are also messy. If we lived life like a well edited story we’d die of constriction. We don’t live our lives like that. That’s how others may see us and our lives, but the reality is that in the moment we are messy with mixed emotions and motivations and our paths are littered with junk our psyches drop like old skin.
After finishing the first Cricket and Grey book I think I set myself up for failure with a return of expectation. Now that I finally finished a novel and actually printed it and people have read it – I rebuilt the expectation that I should be able to sit down and write with control. But the control of writing is an exercise in multiple steps. First you get the crappy draft down, but you let it be colorful and melodramatic if that’s how it comes out, you let it come out live and imperfect, then you begin to shape it and perfect it through edits.
Everyone’s process is different so I can’t actually say this is how it is for all writers. What I’m saying is that this is how it is for ME.
Part of the power of my blog writing, the stuff people tend to comment about, the stuff that makes people think I’m a good writer, is that I let stuff come out unfiltered. Some of my best blog writing is late at night after several beers because my walls are down, my instinct to control everything I say is gone. It comes out raw and living and definitely dramatic. Sometimes I wake up and hate what I wrote because it’s embarrassingly earnest and as melodramatic as a teen experiencing their first passions in life. I hate that shit. HATE IT. But that’s the same well from which my poetry comes, my best words, my most creative and inspiring writing comes from that same place.
It’s also the same well from which my nightmares are drawn.
You could say that the best and the worst all comes from the same well. My psyche.
I can’t draw on that unless I let my defenses down, let go of control, let the living moving magma out of the mountain.
Part of it is about trust too. Trust that I can take the raw material, the wildly stupid messy narratives, and shape them into something worthy the way they play themselves out in my head. Trust that the first draft is not an indication of the worth of the story but merely the lump of material from which a great story is chiseled or molded or built.
Pick the metaphor that works best for you.
The thing I can’t account for, the thing I miss and want and need is that energy that pulls me back into the process every day. The energy that makes everything else in my life feel less urgent than getting back to the page. That sense of excitement, discovery, and purpose is like a drug, I suppose. I have heard nearly every successful writer say that becoming successful is about showing up to the page even when that excitement is on the wane. I believe this, I do. I believe it because a person, no matter what they’re doing, can’t be UP all the time, can’t be EXCITED all the time, can’t be PASSIONATE all the time.
If a person IS up all the time, excited all the time, and passionate all the time, then they are living a life out of balance. Or they’re on recreational drugs.
Everyone needs times of reflection, of inwardness, of aloneness, of quiet. I’ve known people who are exquisitely uncomfortable being alone with themselves, with down time, with quiet days, with slow work, and with reflection. I’ve known people who think their relationships with others are over the minute passion quiets down or the sex isn’t as exciting or as frequent.
Everyone needs refueling from time to time. That is a fact. Creativity needs refueling. Love needs refueling. Bodies need refueling.
So I know that part of writing is accepting that it’s not going to be exciting every single time you sit down in front of your page. But a year and a half of feeling the words die on the page? This is the kind of thing that makes a writer quit, that made ME quit before.
I won’t quit this time. I just need to get out of my own way and let this first draft be messy and dramatic, rich and overstuffed with adjectives. I just need to let it come out without trying to control every sentence as it gets to the page where it dies from suffocation.
Time to let the magma out.