Before I go any further, let me pause to say: I am a lone wolf. I don’t usually pay much attention to those pitches to “write your novel in three days” or “you, too, can create a bestseller in less time than it takes to cook a turkey.” These sorts of things make me roll my eyes. They strike me as false promises made to people who want to have written a book rather than actually write one. Because the sad truth is that writing is HARD.
It stretches the brain. It makes you exhausted. It just plain hurts, a lot of the time. Not recommended for anyone who doesn’t occasionally find themselves soaring through the firmament of creative bliss, wind under wings.
But I’m also addicted to reading books about writing. I love hearing what other writers have to say about the process, not only for my own efforts but also to bring into my teaching. So, when I stumbled across Story Genius by Lisa Cron, I read it, and found wisdom in it that I often share (a string of events does not a gripping novel make)… as well as an approach that seemed to merge a focus on building the foundation of a character / idea with my need to make room for my subconscious.
So, I thought, what the hell, and began diligently approaching the exercises at the end of each chapter.
Thinking hard. Staring out windows, daydreaming, writing sometimes, thinking some more.
When I’m teaching, writers will often express anxiety about “not writing.” This happens often with writers in my mentorship program, who come to me with drafts already completed.
“What have you been doing?” I ask, and – as I suspect – they might tell me about spending three hours creating whatever form of a plot outline works for them (multi-coloured sticky notes or a timeline drawn on a stretched out piece of paper or something fancy done up in some software like Scrivener) or about “procrastinating” by going for a two-hour bike-ride to try to get clear on backstory details of their protagonist.
“That is writing,” I say, and they stare at me, sheepish, seemingly not wanting to take me at my word.
It seems that – unless the hand is scribbling constantly or the keyboard loudly clattering – it’s hard to believe in the imaginative act. It’s hard to have faith that work is happening unless our brow is sweaty and our carpal tunnel’s acting up, all in the name of what we envision a writer to be doing: the montage scenes of clatter-clatter-clatter-ping before a stack of white pages is boxed up and delivered to the big New York publishing house.
“You have to learn what writing a novel is for you,” I tell writers who are struggling with this anxiety. Often, if they haven’t written one before – or, if they have, but haven’t taken it through revision to a final draft – they simply see writing (the act), and not the many other things that happen but that don’t fit that singular image.
Like struggling to think your way through a line of logic, or imagine the details of setting, or reading books for research, visiting a farm to get a sense of the smell in the air, watching The Wizard of Oz for research (true story) and, yes – much of the time – staring out windows.
It takes courage to persevere when we aren’t sure if we’re doing something “right.” It takes a one-day-at-a-time, one-thing-at-a-time attitude and a willingness to meet whatever challenges arise in the process. That’s why it’s hard (“if it’s easy, everyone would be doing it,” I also tell my students).
I am currently working on my seventh novel. Two have been published, which you’ve maybe read; one died on the vine, after six drafts; another I abandoned after completing because I was young and scared and didn’t get a grant that I applied for; another is “on hold;” and another is currently being shopped by my agent, so far receiving glowing rejections.
At this point in my career, I understand that writing a novel is a challenge that requires many different forms of approach, and thus I feel confident enough to pick up a book suggesting a new-to-me technique and thinking, Why not? I’m not like that writer who had to sniff the rotten apples in his drawer before he could work (I always thought this was Flaubert but maybe not). My demands are not ritualistic but practical: for one thing, I need a lot of “head silence,” meaning very limited social media and carefully monitored internet time.
Is what I call “head silence” the same as boredom? Could be.
Thinking comes, imagining comes, as it did when I was a kid – as I chew on a pen, and stare out windows or into the middle distance while I walk my cat around the yard.
What I know, what I tell my students, is that it is essential – the daydreaming, the embrace of “not writing” – to the writing craft.