I’ve got a thirty-minute break before my next parent-teacher conference, so I thought I’d use this time to do some writing. I know I won’t be able to get any meaningful creative writing done, sandwiched as this moment is between long and stressful blocks of trying to calm down nervous parents and stressed-out students. My stress levels are elevated today, too. Not a great place to be, mentally, when you want the ideas to flow. The doors of my imagination just can’t swing freely on their hinges at the moment.
Since I’m currently stress-blocked and don’t feel up to generating anything creative right now, I figured I’d use this time to sneak in a blog post and try to unpack a problem that has been dogging me of late.
Over the past week, forward progress on my WIP has slowed to a snail’s pace. I need to figure out what’s going on. What has changed? What can I do to unblock myself?
You know how everyone always says stuff like, “You can’t edit a blank page,” or “The first draft is supposed to be terrible?” Of course, you do, if you’re a writer. It’s inescapable, especially during the month of NaNoWriMo. I firmly buy into those clichéd tidbits of advice. If I had more time (hahaha) I’d needlepoint it onto a cushion and then sit on that cushion as I wrote.
However, something happened on the 15th that seems to have changed things and not for the better. We (being the folks in Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program) received our mentor pairings for next semester. Fourth semester students (like me) work on one thing and one thing only: our creative theses. Or, in layman’s terms, we’ll be trying to shine up a reasonable draft of a book. Up until last week, I was feeling pretty good about that. Looking forward to it, in fact.
Good News, Bad News
Then, we got our pairings. Good news: I got my first choice for a mentor. The esteemed Chris Lynch, author of Inexcusable, Little Blue Lies, and Angry Young Man, and others. I also got my first pick for my Thesis Reader: Jason Reynolds, author of Patina, When I Was the Greatest, and All American Boys among other books. To invoke Chandler Bing, “Could I be more excited?” Maybe, but it would be difficult.
Anyway, I got that news and fist-pumped the sky, did a dance of joy, and then froze. Oh, sugar-honey-iced-tea. Chris Lynch and Jason Reynolds are going to see my story. Turns out the good news is also the bad news.
Here’s what that sudden, stark realization felt like. Imagine you’re at the grocery store, heading back to your car carrying two extremely heavy and overpacked bags of foodstuffs, and you’re feeling stoked because you hit some sweet sales and managed to stock up for the week and then some. You’re crossing a busy throughway in the parking lot when the bags let go. All at once, the bottoms rip wide open and vomit your stuff all over the pavement. Cans are rolling everywhere. The milk carton is ruptured. A white puddle expands at your feet. Dented boxes, broken eggs, bruised apples racing away, and cars coming at you from both directions. What you thought of just moments ago as an awesome bundle of tasty treats now looks like an embarrassing heap of trash.
My “book” now feels like those groceries lying broken and hopeless and ugly on the pavement, and Mr. Lynch and Mr. Reynolds are the drivers who have to stop and get out of their slick cars to help me to scrape all my crap up off the ground. They know how to bag groceries. This would never happen to them. I’m a schmuck, and now they have to deal with my foolishness.
Perception versus Reality
I’m not saying that’s my actual situation. Maybe my “book” isn’t as big a mess as all that, but that’s how it feels right now.
I’ve got this thing, this rough draft, and it’s terrible in all the ways that I usually tell myself a first draft is allowed to be. But…
Two authors whom I respect (and, okay yes, idolize) are about to put eyes on it. All of a sudden it no longer feels okay for my rough draft to be messy. I want to turn my work-to-date over to Chris, have him read it, and then get an email from him expounding upon how wonderful it is and how excited he is to help me cut and polish this diamond of a story.
I want that, but I don’t have a rough diamond to give him. I’ve got a pile of ruined groceries hastily scraped up off the blacktop, possibly destined for the garbage. And he’s going to judge me!
He’s not going to judge me.
The man is amazing. So is Jason, who will read my “finished” product at the end of this semester and either give it the thumbs up (I pass) or thumbs down (I still pass, but let it be known that I am a talentless hack). Every student who has worked with these two men has sung their praises.
The point is, I no longer feel okay with my rough draft being terrible. In my desire to impress two incredible authors, I’d want it to be perfect, spotless, shiny. Glittering to the point of blinding in its utter fabulousness. Is that too much to ask?
We’re Our Own Worst Critics
Yes, as it turns out. Perfection is too much to ask, and my self-imposed, unattainable new expectations have bogged down my writing process. My muse has curled up in the fetal position at my feet beneath my desk. She’s utterly useless under pressure, I guess. Meanwhile, I am getting hung up on every single sentence I try to write. Is this description strong enough? Are these verbs punchy enough? Am I rambling? Should I cut this? Do I need to elaborate here? Why’s there so much dialogue in this scene? What the H am I doing?
That’s me, snail-crawling along, doubting EVERYTHING about my writing and my characters and my story. Whereas I normally can pump out a solid 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, I’m now down to less than 500.
Which I guess would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that I’m supposed to turn in 13,000 words of new material on December 1st in preparation for my January residency. I’ve only got 6,200 words so far, and that has taken me almost two weeks to generate. And it’s all rough draft quality work.
This really should be an IWSG post, because I am feeling more insecure about my writing than I have probably ever felt before in my entire life. It’s cool. It’ll pass. I’ve doubted myself before this, and I always get over it…
Until then, I’ll continue to plug along and hope that, with the help of an incredibly talented (and patient–dear Freya, please let them be patient) mentor and reader, some of my groceries will turn out to be salvageable. Because what else can to do? It’s part of being an aspiring writer, right? I either quit now, or I push through the doubt and continue to dribble the words onto the paper.
Okey-dokey. Break time’s over. Back to the day job.
Has anyone else had nearly paralyzing moments of doubt brought on by the prospect of having a legitimately talented author/agent/editor reading your stuff? Please, tell me I’m not the only one.
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Totally understand your frustrations and self-doubts.
You’re an amazing writer, though, so I hope you’re able to set them aside and power through it.
If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.
What you just described is me and pretty much everyone who read this post. Unfortunately it’s not enough. Regardless how many other writers are experiencing the same it is a lonely feeling. We somehow convince ourselves we are the only ones and maybe, just maybe, we’re not cut out for this.
Example: My novel is complete. Three years in the making and I did it. Applause! Thank you.
Now the bad news: No sooner than I said thank you to my editor (she was amazing by the way) that I begin to fret over the synopsis an agent asked to see. Now, all I can think about is that dreaded synopsis and how much I hate writing one. I am officially the worlds worst and all my hard work will explode. Thankfully my daughter dragged me to the movies last Sunday so that helped a bit.
So you see, for as lost and crazy as it feels, we’re all in this together. On the bright side us writers are a stubborn bunch. We never quit and yes, that means you.
You can do this and you will.
Oh, you’re definitely not the only one! Good luck!