What do you do when the writing isn’t easy?

I have no clue.

I just finished that “one last story” that I mentioned in a post last week. And it was hell. Even coming up with the idea was hell. I went through six thoroughly workable ideas. For each one, I got 500-1000 words (and in some cases even farther) into the story before I just completely lost interest. I spent numerous hours, during evening walks and during those sleepless hours after going to bed, trying to reconfigure or combine my ideas and come up with something interesting. And I kept thinking I’d succeeded! At least three or four times, I thought I had the answer, only to find that it fell apart when I tried to write it.

Finally, while I was reading Wired magazine something wormed its way out of my brain. And then I bolted on two other ideas from way back in my files. But even then, the whole enterprise was shaky. For a week, it looked like this one would be another failed idea. I was never particularly excited about it. I restarted the story six times. Each time, its setting, characters, plot, and emotional undertones changed significantly. I hated almost everything I put down, except the interactions between two of the characters. Each night, I re-envisioned the story in order to keep the good stuff and discard the shit. Finally, today, I wrote a draft that works. It’s not good, mind you…oh no, I would not call this story good (and I frequently do think that my just-completed stories are good). I’m sure that it won’t sell, in fact. But at least it holds together. It’s a story.

For me, that’s the dividing line. Some shit is just not a story. I mean, it kind of looks story-like. It has a storyish quality. It has a beginning and a middle and an end and some characters and a setting and a plot and all that. But it just doesn’t hold together. When you throw it out the window, it doesn’t fly.

A prose fiction can have a great concept and a ton of good lines, but sometimes it just doesn’t fly. And then, on the other hand, a story can be kind of shitty, but still be a story.

It’s hard, though. There’s no mechanical process that can turn a frankenfiction into a real story. In fact, there’s no hard and fast dividing line between the two. The only way to tell one from the other is with your gut instinct. But when your gut tells you to abandon a story, it doesn’t always tell you where else to go. It just sort of leaves you floundering around, waiting for a bolt of inspiration.

That really sucks.

And then, even when your gut allows you to complete a story, that doesn’t mean the story is very good! I recently completed a story that I thought was great, but I had an inkling that it might be kind of sexist. I sent it to a friend and she confirmed that it is, in fact, kinda sexist. That sucked. That’s a major failure of the gut. My gut should never have allowed me to finish the story in that form! (although I am thankful that my gut prevented me from submitting it anywhere).

But you also don’t want an overdeveloped gut. You don’t want a gut that has standards which are higher than you can attain. You want a gut that pushes you to do your best, but not a gut that just clamps down and prevents you from ever finishing anything.

Maybe my gut is usually too easy on me. Most of the time, writing is pretty easy. I don’t usually have even eleven days of struggling. And I don’t usually feel bad about the stories that I finish. Obviously, this trouble I had was mostly due to anxiety over the impending start of my MFA program (Orientation starts tomorrow!). But you can know that’s the problem and still be totally unable to do anything about it.

All of this writing stuff is so unconscious. There’s nothing you can do other than keep trying. I mean, at least I think there’s nothing you can do.

I don’t know. I don’t have an easy answer. At times, during the last eleven days,  I wondered what it would be like if I never found an idea that I was satisfied with. That was a scary thought. And I didn’t really have a good answer. How long would I wait for the right idea? How long would I keep writing drafts and throwing them away? I always used to think Junot Diaz was ridiculous when he talked about how, a few years into writing The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he just got so frustrated and fed up that he stopped writing and declared to his girlfriend, “I guess I’m not a writer anymore.”

I mean, who was Junot Diaz kidding? Of course he was a writer! He’d published a highly acclaimed short story collection, Drown, and won all kinds of awards and been anthologized all over the place. But during this last week, I realized where he was coming from. When you’re not producing anything worthwhile, then it doesn’t really matter what you’ve accomplished. All your accomplishments are just a bunch of rapidly fading memories.

If Junot Diaz can fall into despair like that, then it can happen to anyone.

Normally, I end a blog post by saying, “Oh, and that problem is definitively in the past! And here’s what I learned from it! And here’s why it will never happen again!”

I can’t really say that this time. The problem is sort of in the past, because I’m going to spend the next month or two trying to revise my novel. And I think I still have my mojo (because I did manage to extrude this story…)

But it could easily come back.

All I can leave you with is something that I was thinking about last Monday, during the depths of this whole thing. I thought, “You know…these bouts of writing-related anxiety seem to come, in one form or another, fairly often. They’re really the only blot on my life. Actually, my life seems to come in two flavors–the times when the writing is going well and the times when the writing is going badly. The former times are great. But my life is really going to be defined by how well I manage to handle the times when the writing is going badly. If I can learn how to be happy even when the writing is going badly, then I’ll have a happy life. If I can’t learn that, then my life will be substantially less happy.”

And I think that during this last week I’ve made some progress on how to do that. I’ve realized that as long as I have a plan of attack, then I can have some peace of mind. Instead of doing my brainstorming before each writing session, I’ve learned to do it after the day’s writing session. That way, the brainstorming becomes less of a method of procrastination and more of a post-mortem: “What went wrong today? How am I going to fix it tomorrow?” Once I have an answer (any answer) for that “How?” then tomorrow becomes substantially less scary.

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  1. Widdershins

    Gotta have a plan! …. even if that plan is a variation of ‘Suck it up Buttercup, and write’.
    I guess the line we need to draw when bleeding over a piece, is how we value out time. It’s different for all of us, but the truth of the matter is there’ll always be another story – the world, our lives, are full of them – so how much time are we prepared to spend on one that we have to drag, kicking and screaming all the way to the surface. On the other hand, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s so damn worth it!

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