Sunday, December 23, 2012

On writing avoidance - part 3

As I said at the close of yesterday's post, today I'm talking about another reason for writing avoidance. It takes different shapes and colors with different people and goes by different names - perfectionism being one of them - but it comes down to fear. Essentially, it's the fear that we aren't good enough to pull off whatever we're working on, and it affects writers at all levels of the writing game.

Here are some famous authors talking about this notion, in one way or another:

Neil Gaiman, talking about the award-winning The Graveyard Book:
“Twenty-three years ago, we lived in a little Sussex town in a tall house across the lane from a graveyard. We didn’t have a garden, and our 18-month-old son loved riding a tricycle. If he tried riding in the house he would have died because there were stairs everywhere, so every day I would take him down our precipitous stairs, and he would ride his little tricycle round and round the gravestones. As I watched him happily toddling I would think about how incredibly at home he looked. I thought that I could do something like ‘The Jungle Book’ with that same equation of boy, orphaned, growing up somewhere else, but I could do it in a graveyard. I had that idea when I was 24 years old. I sat down and tried writing it and thought, ‘This is a really good idea, and this isn’t very good writing. I’m not good enough for this yet, and I will put it off until I’m better.”
Stephen King came up with the basic idea for what became Under the Dome (published in 2009) in the 1970s. According to descriptions of the book, "it is a partial rewrite of a novel King attempted writing twice in the late 1970s and early 1980s, under the titles The Cannibals and Under the Dome." King said that the earlier,unfinished works "were two very different attempts to utilize the same idea, which concerns itself with how people behave when they are cut off from the society they've always belonged to. Also, my memory of The Cannibals is that it, like Needful Things, was a kind of social comedy. The new Under the Dome is played dead straight."

Both of these are examples of authors who got an idea that they loved, but didn't quite have the chops to pull off at the time they thought of it. They tried, and failed, and put it aside, and in both cases, they pulled those ideas out of the drawer years later and made them work. This is not meant to be a "get back on the horse" speech, by the way: my point today is not that they succeeded later, but that they failed in the first place. King reportedly had something like 100,000 words written for The Cannibals when he scrapped it. Think how disheartened you'd feel, that far into a project, to figure out that it just wasn't working and stuff it in a drawer.

And we all have projects stuffed in drawers, real or figurative, don't we? Some of them never really got off the ground. Some were abandoned part-way through. Some of them are completed drafts, possibly that have been through more than one round of revisions, that never quite seemed ready for submission. Some are things we submitted and couldn't find a home for.

As those things pile up, it's easy to worry that maybe we don't have the chops for those projects. From there, it's a hop, skip and a jump to the idea that maybe we don't have the ability to pull anything off, or to do it well enough, or as well as our inner - or, worse, some external - critic would like. Maybe we've gotten something published, and it got a bad review, or someone said something awful about it on GoodReads. Maybe we sent it to someone for a critique and the comments that came back indicated that the person didn't get it, or didn't like it.

Negative comments, whether self-generated or from the outside world, are a fact of life, but it can be ridiculously easy for them to take over and make the idea of sitting down to write seem imposterous (you know, where you feel like an imposter trying to do an impossible task?). Why bother to write when you might not finish, or if you finish, it might not sell, of if it sells, people might not like it?

I wish there were a simple answer for this, but there isn't. Although T. Michael Martin may come close, really, in this video, when he says "I think courage is a clear-eyed reckoning of the fact that life is difficult and frightening and that progress is unromantic and slow and secret". And then later says, "Every sentence I writer is a moment of vulnerability and also at the same time of feeling, like, beautifully reckless."

I just know that in my case, the answer has turned out to be that writing is something that doesn't really leave me alone. Even this past year, when I didn't get a lot of writing done, I found it impossible not to write. I have a new picture book manuscript I'm pretty tickled with, and at least two poems that I think are pretty great. And lately I've been thinking about other, more in-depth projects. A YA novel that needs to be finished, a middle-grade novel that needs revision, and two collections of poems that need a only little bit of attention before they go out into the wide world.

It's not that I don't still have that fear that nothing I do will be good/clever/original enough; it's that I've realized I don't have much to lose. Time, maybe, but I enjoy the time spent writing, once I sit down to do it. Postage, perhaps, for the places that still want snail mail. And yeah, there's a high probability that I'll get rejections - and lots of them. But we all know they're a fact of the writing business. I just remind myself of this quote from Madeleine L'Engle, who spent a couple of years trying to market A Wrinkle in Time:
"I knew it was a good book when I finished it, I was very excited by it. I knew it was the best thing I'd ever done. It's very frustrating when you've had six books published to get the printed form rejection slips. It was sent through an accredited literary agent, but it obviously went to the lowest readers. I can't tell you how many publishers have said 'oh I wish I'd gotten my hands on that book' and I say 'you did.' One publisher didn't believe me until I sent him a copy of the rejection slip."
It'd be nice to have that sort of happy ending someday, wouldn't it? I don't expect it, though. But it doesn't mean that continuing to try isn't a worthwhile idea.

I'm wondering what others think about this particular form of writing avoidance.
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