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 I received a veritable flood of thank you’s from other writers, many still unpublished, most saying something along the lines of it being helpful to know that they aren’t the only ones.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?