When I started writing my book in earnest many months ago, I thought: Fun. Exciting. No problem. I’ll be writing about my own life. How hard could it be? I’ve written about it before. A lot.
I assumed (presumed? hoped?) the book would evolve smoothly, that if I did what I tell my students to do, if I just wrote, if I put words and more words on the page, the through-line would appear as inevitably as the sunrise; the book’s structure would reveal itself—almost magically, with little or no effort. The book would become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—my only job would be to guide it along, harness it as needed.
Of course saying all this to you now, I hear it: It’s ridiculous.
I’d guess that most people who embark on a creative endeavor have some version of this experience. You think you’ve actually begun to write/paint/create whatever the “it” is. And then you realize you are really just beginning the part that comes before the beginning.
My “book” has become an animal to be sure—less powerful grizzly bear with a wild and shimmering coat, more ailing octopus, tentacles intact but its massive mantel slowly caving in on itself.
It turns out not to be an easy thing to back-track through a life—its whys and what fors—the rocky moments and the even rockier ones. To make sense of it all. For the material to produce something revelatory, for me, the writer.
One reason why beginning students (and more experienced ones, apparently, such as the one writing this blog post) can get discouraged quickly is that once the obstacle of “getting started” is overcome, a whole new set of issues can come to the fore: self-doubt, for example. Fear of rejection. Fear of being really bad at it.
I used to think about creative projects the same way I thought about life: It’ll just…happen. I won’t actually have to be there when it happens. I will be someone else…I’ll be that brilliant writer person who knows what she’s doing.
I know a little more than I used to, which means, mostly, that I know how much I don’t know.
Now that I’m over the shock of having a floppy, slippery invertebrate on my desk rather than a strong, fierce mammal of a book, I’m in a better position than I was six months ago lounging in the comfort of my naivete.
I’m not hopeful anymore. I’m awake.
Hopeful is precarious, and relatively easier (cross your fingers, hold your breath, and hope for the best).
Awake is a state you can’t argue with, and more difficult.
On the other hand, to use a scale that dips and rises between “easy” and “difficult,” is to use the wrong kind of scale, the wrong units of measure. It’s less about measuring, more about staying the course, being a grown-up, becoming brave enough to go within and let go of where you’re going. You have to have chops.
This isn’t news. And it doesn’t just apply to writing projects. Being hard on one’s self, creating under the pall cast by perfectionism, is, in some ways, to lack courage, it’s to dig one’s heels in and resist moving forward into open waters where what you make can turn out to be bad, or mediocre, or really, really good.
If I already knew what I needed to say in my book, if I had clear direction, I wouldn’t struggle as much, wouldn’t have anxiety, or doubt myself or my abilities or my point.
But I also wouldn’t bother.
My book is an octopus. It has no spine for narrative muscles to wrap themselves around. Yet. The octopus, according to Wikipedia, is “the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates.”
So I will do as I say: I will put words and more words on the page. I will stay the course. I will cultivate chops. I will undig my heels and float into open water. The book will become its own gorgeous, self-sufficient animal—with a spine.
Or it will become the healthiest, most beautiful octopus ever.