Jul 27 2009
Had a great conversation with a friend the other day online, about when to let stories go and when to push through and finish them. Conventional writing wisdom I’ve encountered often describes the “wannabe” writer as someone perpetually working on that first novel (but never finishing). Given how many writers attach parts of their ego to their created works or their creative process, it’s not surprising that many feel a sense of failure from not finishing a particular work.
Good writing advice I’ve seen elsewhere does take the time to remind a budding writer that the hindbrain processes are strange and mysterious, you’ll have more ideas than you’ll ever have time to write, and you can often learn more from your writing “failures” than your blissful successes. Here are a few of my own current writing aphorisms I’ve found useful:
Along similar lines as “trust your process” recommended elsewhere, I’d say that “trusting your process is trusting yourself”. The more I let the story’s needs dictate how and when writing happens, the stronger the stories seem to become. When I try to impose external “shoulds” on a particular piece of work (such as, this should be done in this way, or I should be further along on this than I am), I’ve found that almost inevitably I will have a less pleasant and rougher road working on that piece than I do on the ones where I trust the process of creation, however quirky it looks viewed from out here. Sometimes things will take longer than they “should”; assuming you’re not working to a deadline, at this stage in the process you’re the only one passing judgment on you. Are you precognitive that you know the exact creation time-line of each work you envision?
One I have to repeat to myself regularly on the novel and occasionally on shorter works, is “it doesn’t matter if it’s good, it matters if it’s a draft. Drafts can be fixed.” This is a good one for quieting the internal editor that makes you want to go back and polish the beginning bits to perfection before, you know, actually getting to the end; or to barely write because your sentences must be award-winning quality the first time they hit the page. My first drafts are some cringe-worthy, cliched, one-dimensional things, more often than not. However, I’ve noticed that cliches can often be secret code or thought cues when later reviewing the draft, and my revising mind can come up with much better prose more clearly and quickly if I’m following my own hindbrain’s shorthand. My stepmom and first editor Mary Bass says that even a final work is never “done”, in that you always have the option to go back and change or improve your own work. (Whether or not you “should” is a different panel.)
A more recent realization that has been helpful is “just because it’s generally good to finish things doesn’t mean that everything started must be finished.” Just like a musician has scales, or a dancer has stretches, a writer will have bits and pieces of elusive stories lounging in the trunk. Some of those will eventually grow into finished works; many or even most will simply exist as snippets of almost-was. It might be helpful to view them as writing exercises, or brain warm-ups, rather than personal failures.
Similarly, “done doesn’t always mean finished,” whether you mean “I am so done with this POS!” or as another reminder that a finished product isn’t the only marker of success, just the one most obviously recognized as such. I like going back and looking at my writing idea one-liner posts to myself; I rarely find anything I want to use (yet) in a story, but I do enjoy seeing how clever (or sometimes so very not) I am even when just brainstorming or idea-churning. My hindbrain seems to insist on hiding them under half-a-dozen different tags, but that just makes finding them a bit of an adventure, which seems to be part of the fun.
What, if any, are your experiences with any of the above ideas in your own work? (Oh, and I’ll be away from net connection next monday so no writing post then, but feel free to comment in the menatime on this or any of the other ones, I should have phone and limited email access.)