This weekend I finished a first draft of my novel about a forty-year-old unemployed woman obsessed with the musical Cats who leaves her seemingly pretty awesome husband and rekindles a relationship with the crazy artist who made her life hell in her twenties. Whewwww. That was a mouthful.
Finishing the draft was a big deal. I wanted to pour champagne for my fellow participants in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle, who encouraged me through the last ninety pages of this draft. I glowed to my boyfriend. I’m still trying to figure out how to reward myself (can Crystal the Monkey come over and play Galaga with me?).
I started writing this draft in October of 2009, exactly two years ago. I worked on it pretty regularly — okay, more off and on — for a few months. And then I started losing faith in it. I wasn’t sure what the story was about. This is really bad, I thought. And so it sat. And then I went back to it. And then it sat again. And so on. Until I started to worry it was “on the pile” — the pile of my unfinished novels. (This would have been the third.)
I don’t believe we need to finish everything we start. That’s a thought that can definitely be questioned. We can’t imagine every twist and turn our lives will take, how our experiences will shape us internally so that we may not want or need what seemed so vital five years ago. It’s okay to let go.
But I wasn’t happy that these last two novels had been abandoned about two-thirds of the way through. I was starting to think it was a pattern that didn’t feel good: When I feel stuck, I stop. I talked to Jenna in a coaching session and it came out that this last novel, I was kinda bored with. The voice didn’t seem quite right. I didn’t think I cared about the subject matter. The earlier novel, the second to last one, well, as I told Jenna, it scares me. It’s been sitting so long. I don’t even want to look at it. “That’s the one you need to finish!” Jenna said. And I suspect she is dead right.
So I resolved to let this last novel go and get back to work on the scary one, the earlier one. Only, the thing was, this last novel didn’t want to be let go. Hey you, it whispered to me while I was trying to fall asleep one night. I’m not letting you off so easy!
So when the opportunity to join Jenna’s Writer’s Circle arose, I decided I would use it to finish this not-quite-right, kinda boring book. I embraced Anne Lamott’s terminology, “shitty first drafts,” wholeheartedly.
And I learned something: This novel was also the scary one. My boredom with the book, my seeming apathy toward it, was a cover-up for fear. I didn’t want to go where the story wanted to go. I didn’t want bad things to happen to my characters. I wasn’t sure my writing muscles were in very good shape. And I wanted it to be good, dammit.
It was overwhelming.
So, with the daily structure put into place by Jenna’s group, I made my goals feel eminently doable: I’d write at least fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. Often, when I filled out my daily comments for the group, my negative thoughts were something like: I don’t know where to go next. It isn’t very good. And the killer: It’s not dynamic enough. I replaced them with: I just need to write the next sentence. It isn’t bad. And: Who am I to say what’s dynamic? I’ll figure that out in the next draft.
In noticing the thoughts that keep me from moving forward, I take the charge out of them. They are just thoughts. In doing this with a group, I saw that we ALL have roughly the same negative thoughts about our writing. The same fears. That took the charge out of it all a little more.
In forty-five days, I wrote ninety pages. I still have no idea if the draft is good. But by writing, by moving forward step by tiny step, I learned what the story was about. I got a clearer idea of what my characters wanted. And it wasn’t overwhelming because I didn’t have to do it all at once.
Most importantly (and this part makes me plain old tear up), I remembered the joy of disappearing into my story because I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
We can put so much pressure on ourselves when we create. As if, through our creating, we make the world turn. We can be easier on ourselves. We can show up, write for a while — take it sentence by sentence if we need to — and let the writing come through us. It knows what it wants to be. (“Listen to your broccoli,” says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, referencing Mel Brooks’ line, “Your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”)
But we can also be gently firm with ourselves: by committing to a regular habit of creating. And we can get the support we need to keep that commitment.
If you are feeling massively stuck on a creative project — if you’re terrified to go near the thing or even to speak of it — you are exactly the kind of person I looooove working with. Check out my Free Creativity Consultations — I have some openings coming up.
Image is CONTROLLING THE WORLD… © Radu Razvan Gheorghe | Dreamstime.com