I’ve just finished what feels like my best week ever as a writer. I wrote two very different pieces (I’ve been working on both for two weeks) and I actually felt that they were more than just good; they might, in fact, be great.
Now when I say “finished,” I mean first drafts—not completed, ready to submit pieces, although I suspect they’re pretty close. And the rush of adrenaline, endorphins, whatever—elation!—coursing through me when I stepped away from the keyboard…well, it felt like I’d just rappelled down a waterfall and into a raging river. Not that I’ve ever done that, but my friend Melissa just did and posted such realistic pictures that I found myself holding my breath while scrolling through them.
Don’t get the idea that this two weeks of writing was all sunshine and buttercups. A lot of it was hard, especially the daily slog through the muck of my subconscious—the Willits have a swamp in my front yard. In fact, I think I only finished them this week because a writer friend stopped in for an overnight and seeing her working diligently at my dinner table made it impossible for me to pursue my usual goofing-off strategies. So I worked. And, to paraphrase a famous author, “She saw that it was Good.”
It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago, just before this writing spurt began, I had a free session with an energy coach. He works with people to unblock their stuff. About halfway through the call, he started talking about “the pain of writing.”
“Hold up, mister,” I said—or words to that effect. Writing is harder some times than others, but I don’t see it as painful. He reframed his question a couple of times, but I didn’t bite. And it wasn’t resistance; it was my truth.
Writing is not always easy, but it’s my choice to do it and I’m not in the habit of choosing pain. Work, yes; struggle, sometimes. Sometimes you spend more time playing Candy Crush than writing. But that’s not pain; it’s part of the process.
Have you ever felt that elation? Had a “Best Week Ever”? What’s it like for you?
I haven’t made much progress with my revisions. Oh, I’ve been writing every day, nibbling around the edges. I’ve written several new openings for the book—think I may have finally settled on one I can live with, at least for now. And I separated out 20-ish pages for a retreat application and another seven or eight to submit for publication. That may seem like progress to you, but to me it seems like stasis—or perhaps like treading water. A lot of energy expended, but you’re not going anywhere.
The most consequential comment my writing coach gave me was that I should restructure the piece. Her reasoning seemed sound, so I committed to doing it. A month later, I haven’t even started. First, I told myself that to make a change that large would require that rarest of rarities in a writer’s life: Uninterrupted Time. Not only that, but the Uninterrupted Time should probably take place somewhere other than my house. I’ve had my eye on some chic, Scandinavian-type trailer “cottages”—one step away from camping. Now I’ve mentally added Money to the things preventing me from doing this work.
Eventually, I caught on to my self-sabotage. I set aside a weekend—not an entirely uninterrupted weekend (I wouldn’t have those until baseball season ends), but a weekend nevertheless. I would devote myself to the manuscript. Maybe after that massage I rescheduled for Saturday. What happened? Well, my house finally got cleaned.
No, something else happened too: I realized that one of the things keeping me from restructuring the manuscript is fear. (I mean, duh. But when you’re in the middle of the fear, it’s rarely that obvious.) Although my coach offered sound reasons for restructuring the piece, I’m afraid she may be wrong. But Fear overplayed its hand on Sunday morning when it told me that reordering the manuscript would “ruin” it. Ruin? Like I’m not smart enough to make a digital copy before I start cutting it up?
So I’ve started the manuscript, because
1) she may be right.
2) she may be wrong, but I don’t know how else to structure it. Maybe pulling the piece apart will help me put it back together in a more compelling way.
I’m doing the work sitting at my very own desk in my very own house. While I started with a great swath of time on Sunday, I’ll continue in whatever bits of free time I have. Fear is a shifty, sly thing, but I’m going to win in the end.
I did my job—I turned out a first draft. I knew it was far from final, but still there were some parts I found myself returning to frequently, proud of the ideas or a turn of phrase. I sent it out to my writing coach for feedback, but I wasn’t going to see her for another two weeks. I knew I needed to take a break from writing for a while, but I kept opening up the document, re-reading my favorite parts. Uh oh, I thought. Better not fall in love.
Falling in love with a first draft is as helpful as marrying someone midway through your first date. It may be good fodder for a reality show, but it’s disastrous in real life. I knew this even as I congratulated myself for being clever, even as I saw a t-shirt bearing a somewhat obscure phrase that I’d made central to one of my favorite passages. I bought the shirt. Even if the phrase didn’t survive editing, at least it looks good.
As I write this, I cannot tell you if that phrase will survive. I sent the manuscript, well, 80% of it, to my writing coach and she gently told me exactly what I’d expected: there’s a lot of good material there, but I need to restructure the story. I won’t know how radically that changes the bits I liked until I figure out a different way to start the book. Small detail, right?
I’m still working on it. At the moment, I have four different openings—maybe, when I review what I wrote over lunch today, five. I fully understand that I may get to 50 before the great Aha! The writer Mary Karr said she worked on the first paragraph of her first memoir, Liars Club, for eight months before she was satisfied enough to continue. I don’t usually recommend that approach for a first draft—in my opinion, it’s better to get the material OUT than to obsess about getting every word right. But Karr is now known as an exceptional memoirist, so she clearly knew what she was doing.
Being in a writing class boosted my self-confidence and gave me some self-imposed deadlines. And I met them: bringing in three or more pages of new writing for each class. I thought of these things as essays; they seemed too slight to be book chapters. I wasn’t yet sure I had a central idea. But I remembered enough of what I tell the writers who work with me that I decided it didn’t matter WHAT I wrote; it only mattered THAT I wrote.
So I plugged on, writing my essays. And then I got a nudge from a playwright I’d worked with briefly in college. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban émigrée, made unique contributions to the Greenwich Village theatre scene in the 1960s. She passed away several years ago, but this summer the City Center Encores Off-Center program did a concert staging of the one musical she contributed to—a bizarre and jaw-droppingly absurd thing called Promenade.
Irene wrote the lyrics and book (the script) and she did it in what seemed to me a miraculous fashion. She wrote the character names on index cards, one name per card, and then wrote various plot points, again one per card. Then she shuffled the cards and drew them at random: the results became the “plot” of the show—quotation marks because I recognize that not everyone would call it that.
By the time I’d left the theatre—or at least by the time I’d gotten home—I realized that this book I’d had in my head for so long didn’t have to be chronological. So what if it jumped around the decades like a rogue Tardis. Irene gave me permission to tell my story in any way I wished. The next day, I sat down at my computer with a completely different attitude: my first pages after that may have been tentative, but it wasn’t long before even I had to acknowledge I was writing a book.
Between that revelation in mid-July and the end of August, about six weeks later, my first draft had grown to over 60,000 words. I knew they wouldn’t all survive the revision process, but I was and am proud of my work.
I kept going, day after day, carefully monitoring any doubt that surfaced. “It’s not my job to judge this now,” I told my writing. “My job is just to write.”
And so by the beginning of September I was ready for the next stage.
I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, but I’ve rarely written for myself. I’m writing something for myself now, though, and I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m learning about writing.
I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for something I might write. I’ve actually written bits of it, but it never went anywhere because I lacked a few things:
a deadline—I was just kicking these ideas around figuring that one day they’d gel. But “one day” is not a deadline, so I spent far more time not writing this material than I did writing it.
belief—in myself, in the project. I fell into the Willits—”Will it mean anything to anyone, will anyone care?” The one Willit I did not entertain was “Will it sell?” because I knew I was only writing a first draft (when I was writing at all, that is) and first drafts are just for getting the material out of your head and into your computer.
support—yes, I read a couple of pieces to a few people; they liked it. But I needed someone or a group of someones who could keep me accountable and nudge me forward.
I remembered the old saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And I realized that despite all my decades of writing for other people, I had no idea what I was doing in this new format. Well, I had some ideas. But not enough to shore up my belief in myself—I just needed someone more experienced to tell me I was on the right track. And support—yeah, that one made me laugh because I tell my writers all the time that sharing their work with other writers is the only way to get better, whether it’s with a writers’ group or a coach.
A coach. I needed a writing coach. And as if by magic an email floated into my in-box: my friend Nadia, a very fine writer, inviting people to join her private Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction class.
I committed to bringing new material to each class, even though I knew I’d probably only get a chance to share it every other week. I had a deadline.
Sharing did indeed help shore up my belief—in myself, in the material I was working on. The women in my class seemed eager to hear what I’d brought each week. We did a group reading in front of a small audience—the strangers liked my work, too. I began to believe that I do have a story to tell.
And support—I did learn one or two technical things about writing a memoir, and my classmates always offered sensitive, insightful comments about the pieces I brought in. But I think the most supportive thing for me was just to sit every week in a roomful of writers (yes, this class happened in the real world. Can you imagine it?) and have them accept me as one of their own.
That’s why I called the program I offered this summer “Permission to Write”—because I realized that everyone needs it. Even me.
I’ll post every week about the things I’m learning and doing as I write the book. Subscribe to this blog to be sure to catch every post.
Q: Should I finish my work before I revise it?
A: Oh my goodness—yes.
Creating requires you to let go of your self-criticism and just write. Revising is all about being self-critical—in as kind a way as you can manage. You can’t just switch a toggle and go from creator to reviser and back, not without losing momentum and mindset.
I’m currently writing a book—my first time writing for myself, instead of a client. Yes, I will occasionally spend 15 minutes sitting in a waiting room going over something I’ve written and adjusting a word here, a comma there. But I’m looking at the work through my eyes, not through the eyes of a reader. The reader can be a scary beast, wild-eyed and hypercritical. Once you start looking at your unfinished draft with hypercritical eyes, you’ll see so much wrong with it that you wonder if it’s worth continuing.
Of course there’s a lot wrong with your work—it’s a first draft! And we all know what Hemingway had to say about first drafts. Still, even if it is at this point, Hemingway-sh*tty, commit to finishing your draft. Then put it away for a while. And then revise.
This weekend I had to put together a sample of my book to support an application, carving out 10 pages from the tens of thousands of words I’ve already written. I spent part of one day and all of the next rewriting, revising, staring down every word and sentence to make sure it’s my best. No first draft can withstand that kind of criticism. And when I tried to put the sample away and get back to the work of writing, adding to the pile of words I’ve already created, I couldn’t do it. I had to step away from the computer and read, play with Fenway, clear my mind.
I’m back in writing mode now. But I’m annoyed that I lost so much writing time.
So finish your first draft. Don’t welcome the editor into your head until you’re done. You will thank me.
And if you need some help to get started with writing, visit me at shywriters.com to see what I’ve got cooking for you.
Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.
My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.
My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.
Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:
I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.
I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.
I start my vacation tomorrow. Back when I was working for Other People, vacation would have started at 5:01pm Eastern, or as soon thereafter as I could slip past my boss’s door. But I’m my own boss now. I finished the last piece I needed to ship to a client about an hour ago, but I’m still here at the computer: I can’t find the Off switch.
This vacation is one of four I’ve scheduled for myself this year—one week every quarter, as I try to learn how to unwind. Last quarter, I took a day or two off and then attended a workshop in Southern California. Doesn’t sound like a vacation to you? Listen, to someone escaping a New England winter, just feeling that sweet, sweet California sun is vacation enough.
This quarter, I’m treating myself to a Staycation. (I actually wrote “challenging myself to” first—and then I realized vacations aren’t supposed to be challenging.) And I compromised on my vacation before it even began, ceding Monday and Tuesday to client work. But with next Monday being a holiday, I actually have six whole days of vacating ahead of me. Which is just about as close to a week as you can get.
But what do you do when you’re not tromping around a theme park or pulling a shawl around your body in some too-cold hotel conference room? All the ideas I come up with sound a lot like work:
I could make a to-do list for the projects I want to pursue this summer
I could read that book written by the person I’m going to interview in a couple of weeks
I could clean my house
I could clean my house? Yeah, you know things are desperate when I put cleaning my house on the to-do list. It’s not even tax time.
What will I do? I’m starting with a massage in about an hour, and we’ll see where things go from there.
But first I have to hit the Off switch. I gotta say, I’m nervous about that. What if I can’t do it? Or—maybe worse—what if I can…and I like it?
NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, but I held off posting it. As a result, I held off posting anything—not good. Read on to find the headdesk worthy update that caused me to finally press Publish.
You know how that word sounds when people sincerely want the answer to that question. They ask “why?” with no guile, no defenses.
I got one of those Whys in response to an assertion I made today. And the sheer lack of comprehension in that “why?” short-circuited my brain. Seriously left me speechless. And if you know me, you know how rarely I find myself speechless.
What did I say to provoke such puzzlement?
The man I was talking to had just given a speech, a fairly good one too. He started by talking about a long-ago sketch on SNL. As an homage to the recently deceased Dr. Seuss, they had someone read Green Eggs and Ham as a serious piece of oratory.
What made the sketch indelible was the guest they asked to do the reading: the Reverend Jesse Jackson. So far so good. But instead of showing the sketch, the speaker acted out parts of it. Yes, complete with a Jesse Jackson impersonation.
Do I need to add that the speaker is white?
I told him that in 2019 it is not appropriate for a white person to impersonate a person of another race. I was prepared for a lot of responses—I’d already collared the conference organizer to express my displeasure. The organizer also seemed flummoxed by my passion, but he reacted more defensively—wondered if perhaps I just didn’t see much comedy, didn’t understand comic impressions.
But the sincere, utter cluelessness of the speaker just floored me.
As we continued our conversation, it seemed that he did have some understanding that what he did was inappropriate. He had always read Green Eggs & Ham to his daughters in his Jackson voice, and they thought he was the best storyteller on the planet. So when the Dr. Seuss centennial came around, they volunteered him to read it at the school.
“All the kids were sitting on the floor,” he said, “and I was about to start when I noticed this little African American girl sitting in front of me. And I thought, ‘Should I do this?’ And I decided not to.”
I told him he’d made the right decision that time. And that perhaps if there were more people of color at this conference he would have thought twice about it. (For the record, I raised the lack of diversity with the conference organizer too.) I also suggested that he didn’t need to impersonate the Reverend to make his point. He said he’d looked for a clip to play but couldn’t find one. Perhaps he’s forgotten how to Google. I found one—admittedly grainy—in about 30 seconds.
I’m not sure my conversations with the organizer and speaker accomplished much, though the speaker promised he’d watch the replay and see what he thought. I hope I opened up at least a tiny crack in their worldviews.
As for me…it showed me I don’t get out in the world nearly enough. I live in my little bubble, working with people who understand that diversity means more than having 50% of the speakers be women. I write about diversity and inclusion for clients who have a sophisticated understanding of the issues, so I guess I’ve assumed that people across the business world understand internalized racism and seek to eradicate it.
Oops, the business world tries not to use the R-word. They call it “unconscious bias.” The bias I encountered today was so unconscious it was practically comatose. Whoo boy. We have a lot of work to do.
And then I was watching TV one night and saw an ad for an actual movie that will be released into theatres shortly. “Shortly” as in soon and also, I hope, as in it will disappear almost as soon as it arrives. (I refuse to link to it; you can find it on your own if you wish.)
It appears to be a comedy…about a white man who becomes famous by imitating a black woman on the radio. Think Tootsie as a voice actor—which at least relieves him of the need to don blackface, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see that plot twist before the credits roll.
What about this mess seems like a good idea?
So much for the impassioned conversations I had with the clueless conference organizer and speaker. Thanks for nothing, Hollywoodland.
That’s exactly what I went through. I wrote—I mean, writing’s what pays the mortgage around here; I had to write. Also, my writing streak: 15 minutes every day for over 950 days. That’s at least 237.5 hours of writing, just for myself. Clearly I loved writing.
But then I didn’t. I still wrote well enough, but it brought my zero joy. I resented every word I wrote—for my clients and for myself.
And when your main source of joy morphs into an ocean of resentment—well, it’s scary.
I realized I was burned out. It’s happened once before, over 10 years ago, and I swore I’d never let it happen again. But I had no idea until I read this blog that I wasn’t just burned out as a worker, I was burned out as a writer.
Writer’s burnout is looking at the page, hating the page, and questioning your entire identity as a writer, all for an extended period of time.—Kellie McGann
Perhaps it’s not surprising that my long writing streak ended during my burnout. Fortunately, I picked it back up the next day—and that’s one of McGann’s prescriptions: Whatever you do, keep writing. The voices in your head may tell you you need a break from the keyboard. But step away and you might never return. Find something light to write about, something silly that will make you laugh. Write limericks or doggerel—intentionally bad verse.
Like any burnout, Writer’s Burnout sucks. But keep writing and eventually you’ll remember how writing feeds you. And not just literally.
Now through April 16th, 2019 I’m offering “Practically Free Writing Coaching.” Feeling burned out? Let’s talk about it. Feeling stuck? Need some objective feedback? Book your time now; use it through May 31st.