These days, I’m working on the fourth draft of a strange, new novel. It is largely plot-driven so sometimes I wake in the night with an aggravating case of “what ifs.” What if this happened… Could it? Do I dare? Yes, I do!

I get up, stumble to the spare room, and reach for whatever journal or notebook is handy to write or rewrite a scene.

I am not the most organized person to begin with. I stopped nagging my husband to put his things away when I realized (about 14 years into our marriage; he is very patient) that the drift of books, papers, knitting paraphernalia, etcetera, on the coffee table was 98 percent mine.

What this means for this current project is that I’ve got bits of it all over the place: in journals, in two or three different notebooks, typed on my computer, in a loose-leaf edited-within-an-inch-of-its-life print out of the third draft. In other words: total chaos.

Which is fine.

Because by now, on my fifth book and third novel (actually more like sixth novel if you count the ones that didn’t go on to be published but which I toiled over for years), I’ve learned that this is to be expected.

It’s also the stage that most often stops people, I’ve learned through teaching and coaching.

Think about it: anyone can slam down 50,000 words through November, anyone can tear down a wall and demo a room. But what happens when you’re faced with the mess that you made? When sifting through the rubble and trying to strike a plan to proceed is the only way to move forward?

Get comfortable with chaos, I tell writers when they ask me how to finish their projects. It is the single best piece of advice I know (other than, you know, write. And read.)

What do I mean by that? I mean, learn how to deal with anxiety. Because it’s the anxiety caused by the chaos that’s what pushes us away from the work, not the chaos itself.

Deep breathe as you walk to your writing space. Find ways to organize your project (that are hopefully better than mine). Give yourself support with the words you utter.

“One thing at a time,” is something that I often tell myself when my stomach knots up at the mess in front of me. “Just this” is another great phrase, suggested by yoga teacher Kerry at our last writing and yoga retreat, or (another one that I use): “it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Sometimes new writers think that they aren’t “doing it right” if they feel uncomfortable. But no new craft or art-form is without discomfort.

Think about a time when you learned something new: how to tell time on an analogue clock, how to change a tire, how to bake a pie. Right now I am trying to learn how to spin clouds of sheeps’ wool into usable yarn and am viscerally remembering discomfort.

Every novel, every story, every essay, every poem requires fresh crafting so we have to learn all over again with each project how to structure it, how to best tell it (this is what makes creative writing an art rather than a science). It gets easier because we get used to the process and what it demands of us, not because the process changes.

I love this excerpt from a poem by Rumi that came across my Facebook feed the other day:

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!

Becoming comfortable with chaos means that we are able to peer inside the mess of the thing we’ve made and find those holes, locate those spaces that need to be filled or, as I like to call it, “written into.” Don’t think you must avoid it. Truly, it contains what you need.

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P.S. In other news, my new novel is on sale until the end of the month. Access it through this post about how it came to be, what it means to me to be a Manitoba writer, and other terrific writers from my neck of the woods.