Since I got back from the East Coast, I have been thinking a lot about my writing process, both the macro and the micro.
First, what prompted all this musing: I have been unemployed for seven? eight? weeks now, and I have finished all of one item on the writing to-do list. I am worried that I am wasting this precious gift of time.
Second, some links, because when you are musing on a topic the web will always provide synchronicity:
It is not merely a matter of my daily word count, though. Certainly I obsess over it, but like many obsessions it is a way of fretting about other things. I obsess over my numbers because of my age, because of all those years where I just sat around waiting for the muse to arrive. I feel like I have to make up those years now; I feel like time is slipping through my fingers. Yet the harder I push myself, the more rote the work feels, and the more I worry I am falling into well-worn grooves.
I suspect none of this is new to other writers, or anyone who has struggled to manage their time and their passions. But I feel like I am reaching an impasse between my self-imposed goals and the writing itself.
I found my writing voice at 37. If voice has two components, the style (the way you write) and the substance (the stories you are compelled to tell), then I nailed my style ages ago, but struggled to find my substance. Instead I spent years trying to write the realist fiction that other people held up as Literature; I have hard drives full of pieces that trail off after 3, 5, 8 pages, when I finally bored myself into giving up.
And it is difficult, in this world of 20-under-40 and 35-under-35 and Best New Novelists lists where not a one was born in the 1970s . . . it is difficult to start at 37. It is hard. To recognize that your time served only helped to hone the style, not the substance. To understand that in some ways you are no further along than the undergraduates you used to teach FFS.
In my worst moments, I am haunted by a curmudgeon of a professor who helpfully informed us that we would have our best ideas in our 20s.
I can barely even remember my 20s.
In the past I have always solved my macro angst through micro interventions: focusing only on the next page, disconnecting the internet, telling myself that 500 words of blathering is always, always better than nothing at all.
But I think I need to start addressing the macro. I need, for instance, to start accepting the quirks of my own process . . . It struck me, the other day, that sometimes what feels rote is in fact taking up an abandoned direction from a previous story. What would have happened had she drunk the Kool-Aid instead, etc. That perhaps my short stories are more like a series of portraits, revisiting the same themes several times in order to explore all the permutations.
Thus is an obstacle reframed as a path.
This also reframes another frustration: that I cannot but write my way into a story, that no matter how thoroughly I imagine or outline beforehand I find myself going through three, four, five drafts as the thing comes to life. The final shape is never exactly what I had envisioned at the start. At some point in the past year I lost my joy for this process, and can only feel frustration now—yet I am also starting to see how those earlier drafts, with their sudden dead ends, come back around in other stories.
Even these musings have come out in fits and starts, recanting and redirecting, finally settling into this sort of two-part spiraling structure that is nothing like the warmup exercise I began with.
And if I keep following the spiral . . . then I come to something infinitely harder, perhaps a life’s work involved.
I need to let go of my lost time.
It feels stupid to say; it feels even more idiotic to say that it may start to cripple me, because it blocks me from pausing when I need to. I have come to accommodate a low-grade anxiety into my daily existence, a little voice urging me to write, get back to it, you’ve only done X number of words today, that story still isn’t finished. I don’t know when it began, but I have realized that my reading, among other things, has dropped precipitiously in the last couple of years. I am not taking in half as much as I need to; is it any wonder that what is coming out feels tired?
In the first twenty years of my “writing” I acquired: a very expensive education, a few rounds of therapy, four finished stories, and three hard drives full of abandoned crap.
And that is done, and I cannot undo it.
Instead, I am trying out a new mantra: whatever it takes. The crutch of a pseudonym, the handouts of relatives, the favors of networking. Asking for help. Practicing gratitude. Staying open, looking forward. Even pausing when necessary.
Whatever it takes. I have no time for anything else, now.
Thus is an obstacle reframed as a path.