A couple days ago, at 12 noon, I looked out the back windows of our house, the ones that face south, showing the silver strip of Grace Lake through the bald diamond poplars, and noticed how low the sun was.
I squinted and pinched out a distance of only about 13 centimeters, and realized, like I did when we first moved here how much the shifts in light defines the north for me.
I mean, it isn’t like we’re up in the Arctic, where daytime shrinks to hours countable on one hand, but at this time of year, I really feel the pulling away of the light, the oncoming dark freeze.
Part of this trepidation, of course, is that I have a manuscript completed, typed up in first draft form, to read. As we count down to the first day of NaNoWriMo – and I’m cheering on all you daring, wonderful writers doing the marathon! – I’m starting at the other end of the process, with the 56,000 words I wrote through the summer and fall, ready to be read.
Because THIS is what it comes to, of course: a draft, needing to assessed, revised, expanded, made into the big, beautiful novel it actually could be – couldn’t it?
And after a bit of proper prep work, any NaNoWriMo writer who’s written diligently and thoughtfully (without getting mired in word-count-above-all-else and babbling on about the weather and toilet-training your cat unless it matters to characterization or plot), will also have a draft.
So then the question arises, as it has for me: how do I face this thing I’ve made, that I don’t quite yet understand? How do I grit our teeth and get to know it, sign up to go steady, even when I’m not at all sure I even, well, like it?
First off, don’t grit your teeth. Instead, breathe. In, out. Good.
I printed out this manuscript a couple weeks ago and sat it on my filing cabinet where it’s lain, sleepily, quietly, waiting.
Last night, I put it on my dresser, my glasses folded on top, beside my favourite bright pink mechanical pencil. Before I slept, I cracked open Fearless Creating, the book that’s my go-to whenever I’m, um, freaking out about the creative process.
I love this book. I love the advice he gives. It makes absolute, wonderful sense. It helps me move forward as much now as it did when I discovered it, at the end of my second semester in graduate school when a story was gushing out of me in seemingly nonsensical and chaotic ways and it seemed highly unlikely and panic inducing that I would ever turn it into the thing, the thesis, the novel (Swarm), it was supposed to eventual be.
Ha. Turns out that never goes away (although the panic does ease, in my experience).
In the section Showing Yourself the Work, Eric Maisel writes: “To look is to take such a terrible risk. The work may need work – a lot of work, a year of revisions. The work may have suffocated to death last month. The work may not match your dream of it. The work may be so very ugly…”
This is the scariest time for me, in writing. Right now, right here. It has bungled me before: there are novels, at least three of them, languishing on my hard drive, printed out of old computers before they died and retired at the landfill, that have sunk into a sort-of quagmire, because I could not face this fear.
Do not let this be you, at the end of November, when NaNoWriMo is over, when the darkness grows ever deeper on the approach to the shortest day. More than ever, that is the time to cast the light. Here’s how, according to Maisel:
“There the work is. You encounter it both as creator and audience member. You need to know: how is it? You need to know: is it finished? But a special inarticulateness overcomes you. It is as if, subtle as a creator, you were reduced in the moment of looking to the level of grunting: good, bad. Yes, no. Love, hate. Keep, destroy. Grunt.
I believe that with enough practice and good faith, you can learn to recognize when the work is achieved. – Gail Godwin
Why this extra inarticulateness, above and beyond the normal trance-of-working muteness that accompanies creating? Because few artists do the two things that would help them effectively frame their thoughts and feelings at such moments. First, they do not strive to consciously manage their anxiety. Second, they do not come to the moment equipped with a sense of what will count as success…”
Armed with breathing-techniques and a thought-out criteria, I have looked.
This morning, I began, assessing with my whole artist self, as Maisel later advises, and not just the defensive critic, and here it is: not so bad.
Thus far, I know the fixes that are needed, and the places that are whole and good. For right now, until I go back in tomorrow morning, armed with my list of criteria, my positive self-talk, this is the job I have to do.
And this is your job, once NaNoWriMo is over, or even more daring, with the draft of that thing, whatever it is, that you laboured over last year, that you then put away, afraid to take a good look.
P.S. If you haven’t submitted a story to the CBC Canada Writes Belonging challenge, there’s still time. Click here to read mine (scroll to the bottom) and hit the bright red submit button (I promise it’s safe:) to post your own.