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December 26, 2012 1st Draft, Editing, Fiction, Revision, Writers, Writing 61 Comments

Wistful Writer

By Robin Black
(Note: This piece first ran in February 2011.)

 

The other day, I posted something on twitter about how every time I begin a new project I have to learn how to write all over again, and a funny thing happened. I received a veritable flood of thank you’s from other writers, many still unpublished, most saying something along the lines of it being helpful to know that they aren’t the only ones.  (As an aside:  What’s not to love about a profession where people thank you for whining about your work?)

Sometimes I forget how lonely a business this can be, especially when you’re starting out, and how useful it can be to hear from another writer how bloody difficult and humbling a process this is.  So, in honor of my first official blog as a regular contributor to Beyond The Margins, I am going to share a bit more about my so-called “process.”  If misery loves company, this is my heartfelt Valentine to you all.

To begin with the beginnings.  Lingering on various hard drives in my possession right now are the abandoned beginnings to at least two hundred short stories. Some of these are mere opening lines, but several dozen stretch as long as fifteen pages and more.  And twenty or thirty are fully drafted; I have just never been able to revise them to my own satisfaction.  I may go back to one or two over time, but probably not.  In other words, for every one of the ten stories in my book – eleven in the paperback – I have started twenty more.
Which means that every time I begin a story, I do so in the knowledge that the odds are pretty slim that I’ll ever finish it, that the overwhelming likelihood is that I will work on it for days, even weeks, and then lose faith.

In addition to these works of short fiction, I also have several dozen similarly abandoned essays, three novels that made it past the fifty page mark and of course the big one, a 300 page novel that I worked on for four years, revised at least three times and that was, in October 2008, the back end of my two-book deal with Random House.  May it rest in peace.  (Long live the new novel, now well underway!) I gave up on that one after my story collection went to press and I realized that whether other people liked it or didn’t like it, I was certain it was the best work I could do.  And I just didn’t have the same certainty about the novel.  I wanted to, but in the end, I did not.  And luckily, my editor’s response was not to throw a fit at the news, but to tell me it isn’t as uncommon as one might think with two book deals for an author to scrap the original novel and start again.

And ‘not uncommon’ is a good phrase to keep in mind.  I’m not sharing these gruesome statistics because I think I am a special case, but because, though arguably the ratio of what I write to what I finish falls on the unfortunate side, I think it’s not all that far off the norm.  We are all struggling here.  We are all making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words, facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems like an eternity.  And we are all haunted by the belief, I suspect, that it’s a whole lot easier for everyone else.

A couple of years ago, at a post-reading dinner, a well-known writer and I got to talking about how impossible it is to predict, when looking at a group of writers in the early career stage, which ones will keep writing over time.  I suggested that maybe success – defined as continuing to write – is determined by three things: talent, hard work and good luck, that without some of all three, it’s very hard to keep going; and my dinner companion added another.

“You have to be good at being a writer,” he said.  “You have to be able to survive it all.”

The conversation moved on, and I can’t remember if I ever asked him exactly what he meant; but I think that I know.  Anyway, I know what being good at being a writer means to me.  Most obviously, it means being able to keep going in spite of the inevitable rejection from others.  But I think perhaps more critically it means being able to survive rejection from oneself, to weather the huge number of failed attempts and dashed hopes, the daily sense that one is not actually good enough to do what one wants so desperately to do.  It means being able to wake up many mornings having disappointed oneself the day before and once again resuscitate in oneself the capacity to hope that this day’s result will be different.  And it means, I have come to believe, learning to recognize that every word one writes is just as important as every other word, that the ones that make it out into the world, cannot exist without the ones that came before, now lingering on a hard drive, abandoned.

Process, process, process.

One of the wisest things ever said to me about writing was said to me about sewing.  Years ago, when I wanted to make my own clothing, an older woman told me, “If you’re going learn how to sew, you’re going to have to learn to love ripping out stitches. “

I stopped sewing a quarter century ago, but I remind myself of that every day.

How about you? Any tips for surviving the inevitable misaligned seams?

 

 

 

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Currently there are "61 comments" on this Article:

  1. Nina Badzin says:

    Bad news for you, Robin–I don’t know how you’re going to top this post. I savored every word. There’s no question we all struggle. I have 2 full books on my hard drive, one that agents wanted to see revisions of but I knew it wasn’t “the one” so on the hard drive it will stay. Yesterday I put away the first 50 pages of another book. The idea isn’t going anywhere–at least I can spot that before page 315 now. I’m writing the first pages of another idea tomorrow, fully knowing, like you said, that they’ll get tossed even if this book is “the one.”

    I especially loved this:
    “We are all struggling here. We are all making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words, facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems like an eternity. And we are all haunted by the belief, I suspect, that it’s a whole lot easier for everyone else.”

    Looking forward to the next post.

    • robin black says:

      Thanks so much, Nina! If this produced a string of comments in which people list the work that they have left behind, i think it could be a greatly encouraging thing. The sheer amount! For almost all us you have to write an awful lot of pages before you write one you think anyone else should read. But I do believe that that final page owes its weight, its depth t the one before. Doesn’t feel like that every minute, of couse.

      Thanks for the nice words, Nina. I’ve been nervous about the big debut!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kelly bergin and Robin Black, Robin Black. Robin Black said: YAY! I'm officially a BEYOND THE MARGINS contributor! My 1st post: surviving the work that doesn't work out http://bit.ly/dZmsFm […]

  3. Nina Badzin says:

    I should add, I THOUGHT the book I’d sent to agents was good enough when I first sent it. Only six months later when I started getting responses (even good ones) did I realize I couldn’t take the story where the interested few agents wanted it to go. Important not to send stuff out until you are UBER-sure.

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nichole Bernier, sillystoryideas. sillystoryideas said: The Write Stuff?: By Robin Black The other day, I posted something on twitter about how every time I begin a new… http://bit.ly/fdfl0X […]

  5. cvwgi says:

    Every word hits home…as it’s meant to!

  6. Robin – fantastic post. So true. It’s funny: with writing, the stories of failure are always the most encouraging. I thought this was great. My list of incomplete works and failures: too long to mention. Am I published? Yes: a novel, journalism, short stories…but less of my work is published than is languishing on disused hardrives and old notebooks. I couldn’t begin to list it. I quote you regularly when I teach creative writing, too – when you wrote somewhere how you got rejected from one publisher, and loved by another. It’s all about the editor. I remind myself of this and my students, too. I regularly get rejected from by one editor with the same peices that get picked up by another. (You came to Cork not long ago, correct?) All the best

    • robin black says:

      Yes! I loved Cork!
      And I love hearing – misery DOES love company? – about all the unfinished work everyone else has. As long as they don’t let it drag them down. As for editors, that was a hard-earned lesson, but such an important one. There really is no one arbiter of what’s good. The job is to find your reader. . . Thank you for your comment!

  7. My drawers (virtual, real, imaginary) are stuffed with abandoned novels, some finished, some not–which I like to believe was (like practicing for musicians?) ultimately important to lead up to the work I did get out there. I think the hardest thing for writers to accept is that you can spend years on projects that end up tucked away, but often it’s exactly that underpinning one ends up needing.

    My funniest example of this was finding an old box of writing from my twenties, where I found about thirty pages of a novel I have no memory of writing.

    Thanks for the great post, Robin and welcome.

    • robin black says:

      Thank you, Randy! I’m so happy to be part of this blog. Like I said before, I feel like I have finally made up for all the sports team where no one wanted to ask me to join!!

  8. Seth says:

    Hi Robin! Nice post. What mystifies me most about my own work is how my opinion of the same sentence, paragraph, or section vacillates wildly over the course of a day or two. One day, I’ll feel giddy with the thought that I have written my best work; a day later, I’ll look at the exact same work and feel despondent. A day after that, I’ll feel giddy again.

    I think what you say is very helpful, and I do always try to keep it in mind: “learning to recognize that every word one writes is just as important as every other word, that the ones that make it out into the world, cannot exist without the ones that came before, now lingering on a hard drive, abandoned.”

    For me, only repeated editing/revising makes me feel comfortable. On the other hand, I also see the extreme value of just letting yourself write, write, write without inhibitions (knowing full well, that yes, that many of these words will not make it into the world.) My issue is that, even when confronting new work, I sometimes maintain my editorial stance; sometimes I forget that my first duty is to simply write.

  9. robin black says:

    I really hear you on that, Seth. I also have some serious trouble sometimes turning off the “inner editor.” It’s gotten better though as more time has passed since getting my MFA. All the craft I learned then has stood me in great stead, I hope, and I don’t regret learning it AT ALL. But for a couple of years post-graduation it was hard not to analyze every draft, including the very first, through that lens. I always say, a first draft should be as close vomiting as possible. . .but I can’t always live by those words.

  10. Beautifully said, and so true, all of it. Also, this post is nicely timed for me, as I move ahead with what will be my third start at my fourth novel. Fourth published novel, I should say–presuming, of course, that I finish it, am satisfied, and my editor agrees that it’s worth publishing.

    The notion that successful writers are the ones who can “survive it all” is one I agree with. The forces against which we struggle are so many and so varied that it’s a wonder anyone keeps at it.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’m certain you’ve given a lot of aspiring writers a reason to keep writing.

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alison Percival, Kathleen Crowley and Robin Black, Randy Susan Meyers. Randy Susan Meyers said: The abandoned work that precedes publication. @robin_black at Beyond The Margins in her debut as a permanent BTM! http://bit.ly/fq5QqH […]

  12. Having struggled with a novel for 5 years (my agent liked it, I didn’t), wrestled it into a long short story, and expanded it into a novella, I know from hard experience that what Robin says is so painfully, exhilaratingly true! Thanks, Robin!

  13. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Robin —
    I agree with Nina — you’re going to have a tough time topping this post! So good. You know, we all recognize that failed attempts, revisions, failed revisions, etc. are part of the process, but it’s heartening to see it spelled out this way. Thanks.

  14. Bernie Brown says:

    Oh, dear. I both sew and write!

  15. Could I get this made into a plaque please? For my part I have two novels in a drawer and am on page 130 of number three… Love this: “that every word one writes is just as important as every other word, that the ones that make it out into the world, cannot exist without the ones that came before, now lingering on a hard drive, abandoned.”

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      Thanks, Cindy! It’s not so easy to keep that one in mind, but I honestly believe it’s true. It’s all one process. Not always a fun or easy one, but all one process. . .

  16. Timely for me, yes. And while on one level I know that I am not the only writer who struggles with this back and forth, in and out of love with my words issue, to be so thoughtfully reminded that I am not alone is a generous gift.

    I loved every word of this post and all the comments. Three years and three revisions into my first novel, I have gone back to the blank page, convinced now that the story is right, the execution is wrong. So I am beginning again, amidst much angst and doubt. On a good day, I am sure I can see this through. On an okay day, I’m pretty sure I won’t make it worse. But on a bad day, I have so little faith in my ability and my words that I question why I ever started writing in the first place. And yet, this is the only thing I want to do, so here I am.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  17. Erika Robuck says:

    Your words are sweet balm to me this morning as I sit here raw from the violence of last night’s revisions, in a state about whether the changes will be good enough. Thank you for this. You can’t know how it helps.

  18. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie says:

    This is going to be my new, new motto: “You have to be good at being a writer. You have to be able to survive it all.” Always learning.

  19. Jael says:

    “Don’t give up” is my #1 lifelong writer mantra, but I think “misery loves company” is possibly a more spot-on description of my day-to-day writing life. This is a really insightful piece, Robin. Thanks for sharing it.

  20. Rlsoo says:

    Well said. Congratulations (again) on this gig.
    I loved hearing your statistics. As in feminism-The personal is political. Or in this case-The personal is inspiring.

    Here’s one of my stats. My debut novel is 360 pages. Whenever I cut a scene or even a paragraph or two-I put it in a notes file-to dull the pain of editing. My notes file is now 150 pages.

    Your words come at a great time–I’m about to start my next project.
    Thanks!

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      I love the idea of dulling the pain of editing. . . It IS an inherently painful thing to abandon your own words, even to put them in a different file. But clearly we are all in this together!

  21. Lisa Kilian says:

    I want to pound myself on the head for every time I never finish a piece — and now I want to pound myself on the head for ever guilting myself so fully and ridiculously.

    Thank you!

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      No more pounding yourself on the head!! The trick with being a writer is that we are all making missteps all the time. If you stop to berate yourself, you’ll get behind! (Which of course is easy to say. . I’ve given myself some serious head poundings pretty regularly . . .)
      Thanks so much for writing!

  22. Robin, what a wonderful first post! I remember thinking earlier in the process of working on my current WIP that if I ever get it published, I would probably have killed ten words for every word that that survived. Now, years later and with plenty of work left to do, I know I underestimated the word/body count.

    None of our words are wasted, because even the discarded ones can become the building blocks to the pieces we’re trying to create. At least that’s what I tell myself when I consign yet another thousand words or entire file to my “scraps” folder. But still, the whole thing can get very discouraging. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      Thanks so much for the comment. It’s pretty amazing how many of us have similarly crowded hard drives. Yet when I teach college students, most of them have no idea – until of course I tell them. And then they just don’t believe me. But it truly seems to be a normal part of the process.

  23. Perri says:

    Thanks so much for this post. It couldn’t come at a more opportune time. I am in the thick of revisions on two almost-there (I hope) manuscripts. But there have been countless starts and stops over the years.

    I love the sewing metaphor. I know it will stick with me as well.

  24. […] Writer Robin Black is thinking about writing process and writing struggle. […]

  25. Ginny says:

    Robin,

    Wonderful post! On my hard drive are homes for unwanted sentences, files for abandoned chapters, not to be mention whole book drafts. And in my attic — cartons of paper. Used.

    And thank you for these sentences:

    But I think perhaps more critically it means being able to survive rejection from oneself, to weather the huge number of failed attempts and dashed hopes, the daily sense that one is not actually good enough to do what one wants so desperately to do. It means being able to wake up many mornings having disappointed oneself the day before and once again resuscitate in oneself the capacity to hope that this day’s result will be different.

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      It’s so helpful to me, actually, to hear that I’m truly not the only one. . . Though I’ll admit that almost everything I wrote on paper, pre-computers, has disappeared. . . which may be just as well in my case.

      Thanks so much for the comment!

  26. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    So much wisdom here, Robin, on the necessity of learning to love the – often discouraging and even humiliating – process…the ripping out of the seams. I just returned from Puerto Rico where I made many embarrassing mistakes in Spanish and thought, in that case, too. “You’ve just got to do this if you want to do this.” Loved this post and have been enjoying even the comments e.g. “The first draft should be as close to vomiting as possible”. Thanks for this. It’s great to be able to look forward to your posts on a regular basis.

  27. I agree that “not uncommon” is the key phrase. It’s not that 1 out of 10 poems I write doesn’t quite make it, but that 9 out of 10 don’t–at least!

  28. Elizabeth says:

    I too love that image of ripping out seams. I’ve been working on a memoir on living as a an anthropologist and family member in Nepal for twenty years and have lots of fragments in boxes and on hard drives that I may never use. I sometimes despair of ever finishing. Some days the work feels too hard and my skills inadequate. But I’m getting to a point where whittling the story down to the essentials and polishing what remains feels immensely satisfying. I’ve also been heartened to see some of the cuttings that won’t make the book become published essays, short-shorts and poems. But all that takes enough stubbornness to push through the chaos, abandonments, bad writing, and rejection. Its not a beautiful process, but it works.

    Thanks for the inspiring post. I look forward to more.

    • Robin Black Robin Black says:

      My pleasure. Thank you! One of the best things about this post for me is that I’ve gotten to hear about so many projects others are working on. Yours sounds amazing! Here’s to its taking the exact amount of time it needs! (And to your survival skills!)

  29. Good grief! I just happened upon this blog and your post! What a great thing! What a wonderful blog! I am so glad to read this, and to be able to have conversations with you and other writers. molly

  30. Such a wonderful and inspiring post, Robin. (And a little bit frightening.) I like the quote: “You have to be good at being a writer,” he said. “You have to be able to survive it all.” I think, in many ways, it’s that peculiar kind of “survival instinct” that determines whether someone keeps writing or not. And, like most instincts, it’s impossible to say where it comes from or why it’s so strong in some people and so easily defeated in others. Lucky for us, yours seems unbeatable!

  31. […] Robin Black on the “bloody dif­ficult and hum­bling” business of sur­viving the writing life […]

  32. Marisa Birns says:

    Loved, and appreciated, this post. Yes, one does have to be able to survive it all. Writing is difficult and humbling but after the constant starts and stops (the ripping out of stitches!), it ultimately is a most wondrous, fulfilling life.

  33. Great piece, Robin. This stopped me:

    “And it means, I have come to believe, learning to recognize that every word one writes is just as important as every other word, that the ones that make it out into the world, cannot exist without the ones that came before, now lingering on a hard drive, abandoned.”

    Being willing say goodbye to an entire project that isn’t up to your own standards is so hard, so courageous and so necessary. I came to fiction after 15 years of magazine writing, which seems like a natural and easy segue but I found psychologically difficult. In magazine work there’s a direct payoff for every word you write, and a firm deadline. The concept that I could work for days, weeks, months, years on something that might not come to fruition made me almost physically ill. It strikes me now that writing anything not-for-hire requires the suspension of something….maybe something like the traditional notion of what it means to be productive (quantity), so that when you hold up what you’ve produced it is your absolute best. And means embracing something, a kind of faith.

  34. […] 1. I love anything Robin Black pens, including this. […]

  35. K. Lyn Wurth says:

    Robin, thanks for this:

    “We are all struggling here. We are all making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words, facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems like an eternity. And we are all haunted by the belief, I suspect, that it’s a whole lot easier for everyone else.”

    Maybe I’m just coming down into a sugar crash after all of that homemade fudge and peanut butter cookies, but you lifted me up today, with your words…

    Good thoughts back to you, today, Robin, and thanks for the literary sustenance.

    Kelly

  36. Robn,
    I somehow missed this post the first time you wrote it. What a wonderful post that really describes what it’s like to be a writer – unpublished or published. I particularly love the quote from your dinner companion: “You have to be good at being a writer,” he said. “You have to be able to survive it all.” … I’ve been a professional writer for more than 20 years, but most of my publications have come through full-time jobs as a journalist. Not until 2009, did I take the more risky route of freelancing and trying my hand at getting work published in literary journals and accepted by agents and publishers.

    When I finally got something published in a literary journal, it was because I was finally willing to slow down. I wrote a piece for The Writer magazine about my evolution and called it Perfecting the Art of Slowness in Writing. I’m sharing the link because it does relate to a lot of what you’re saying: http://www.lindakwertheimer.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/WRT-OC1211.pdf

    I constantly have to remind myself to take more time, to let things sit, to let things get rejected, too, and not always be so eager to get a small piece published when a much bigger project looms. I am learning to love the “process” much more as a result.

    Linda

  37. Amy Shouse says:

    What a wonderful, assuring post. What is it about hearing that others experience your kind of misery!? Every word you wrote resonated with me and at the same time encouraged me. All I know is that I wake up every day and I long to write. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes a really good episode of Chopped is on and after watching it I secretly tell myself I’m a loser for letting myself down. That’s the hardest part. Talking behind my own back! Nevertheless (and miraculously) I have developed a routine that feels good to me, that feels workable and that reflects who I am. Like you said: Process. If I can love myself enough through my Process that’s more than I could ask for. Writing is like breathing for me. Not a question of if but how deep, how pure, how awake. Thanks for your post. It made my New Year’s Day!

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Robin Black

Robin Black
Robin Black's new novel LIFE DRAWING is forthcoming from Random House, July, 2014, and Picador UK, April 2014. It has been called "a magnificent literary achievement," by Karen Russell, and "a riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal," by Alice Sebold. Her story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family. Read Full

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