Overthinking: process and self

Voyager Gold Record

The painful grind of my intended one-month novel project is finally coming to a close – three weeks late. I am so ready to move on. It’s not so much the project that’s the problem as the time commitment. I’ve been averaging 1,000 words/day, which is just too much to sustain for long periods of time. Sometimes one just needs a break, you know? Besides, it’s not as if the results are the stuff of deathless prose. Clearly the opposite is the case, even if it seems OK as I go along. I’m reminded of this comment Tim Gunn made to a Project Runway contestant a long time ago, which was that when you first go into the monkey house, it smells awful, but the longer you’re there, the less it stinks. I’ve been in the monkey house too long.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to write about this novel project here. On one hand I think, Perhaps this methodology could be useful to someone. Perhaps there’s some value in testifying to this particular way of getting through the agony of a first draft.

Because it is So. Hard. to go from idea to draft, especially early on in one’s writing practice. Ideas are rarely the problem, it’s the process of realizing them that can feel Sisyphean. Where to start? An outline? Research? When to stop researching and start writing? What to do when concurrent research suddenly recasts the thrust of the project, making it painfully clear that emergency intervention revision is required. How to fight the compulsion to obsessively re-write, which keeps one stalled at chapter one for weeks or months at a time. How to reconcile one’s self to the baffling detours the story takes, despite what seems to your conscious mind to be a straight shot to a culminating event. How to allow one’s self to temporarily suspend a genius narrative structure that somehow morphed into the literary equivalent of a straightjacket. How to stay productive during the long slog of the mid-section. How to resign oneself to the draft ending not with some badass revelation or the crystalline moment of perfect resonance you thought you were writing toward, but a dull petering out or an outright clunk. And how to sustain love and passion for a project that you grow to simultaneously hate (see for a better take on the latter this fabulous David Foster Wallace essay, The Nature of the Fun).

For me, the answer to all these questions is the one month fast draft. Once something’s down, it’s easier to see a path forward. Revision is of course a whole other kind of agony, but what part of any artistic process isn’t? If this shit was easy, we wouldn’t do it, because it wouldn’t be worth much.

So. The darker, ickier side to writing about my experience with this process in a public forum is that it’s easy to short-hand it or toss off some quick thing that comes off as (or is) boastful, or strident, or judgmental, or lacking in nuance. This is a method that’s worked for me, personally. It’s not the only way. It’s not even the best way for most people. There is so much that I don’t know about writing and process. And if publication is one’s measure for authority, well—I fall down on that account (…to date).

It’s kind of amazing when you think about how many books are out there on writing process.* I had lunch with a friend and I asked what books on writing he’s found valuable, and he said he hasn’t read many. That he finds what he needs to know about writing in fiction, and that process is more or less the same for writers generally. These points are valid, but I just hate to be in the monkey house by myself. I read a lot of books by writers on writing, as it can be both comforting and revelatory to understand how others think about and navigate the process.

The real sticking point here is: what right do I have to blather on about writing in a public forum? What can I say about writing that hasn’t been said better by a better writer with a better publication record? Elsewhere on these great internets, someone said that it takes a person with “gentle narcissism” to blog in the first place, which I think is a really kind description. Sometimes it’s an uglier impulse. But it can also be an act of hope, an act of optimism, that someone, somewhere, somehow will be a witness to a time or an experience, like the micro-level equivalent of the Voyager Golden Records: great void, we submit to you these things that we have come to know and value. The void might not be as much of a void as it appears. Maybe someone will find that record and shout back, validating the knowledge it contained and adding to it in some unimagined and fabulous way.

And then – to take this entry to its logical and inevitable conclusion – we will walk together, hand-in-hand, out of the monkey house and into the world.

*Last week, at a used bookstore, I found a book on writing by a writer I’ve met. Then! I was electrified to discover that the writer had actually signed the book, to another writer I know. I’m being oblique here because I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the book was sold, an act that suggests it wasn’t valued, despite its having been personalized. It makes me feel as if I am the keeper of some strange private drama, a drama I am only comfortable revealing in part to the great void.


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