About a year or so before I started this blog, I began a mission. I wanted to write a novel.
Like everything else I’ve ever dedicated myself to, I went crazy tackling every angle in order to learn as much as possible, to write the best book I'm capable of producing. I’d been reading books on writing for a while, but I kept ordering and reading more. I picked up the pace on my reading and began consuming as many great works of fiction as I could. I started to read writing websites and blogs and then I started my own blog. I found a great writing school, joined it and signed up for a week-long retreat. Then I signed up for a novel writing workshop and then another. I signed up for an experimental fiction class, with required reading. Everything helped. I had epiphanies daily. The blog has been helpful in more ways than I can count. Somehow, the decision to share my writing experiences has cemented my resolve and the people I have met and the things that I have learned from them have enriched my life in ways that go far beyond the writing.
And then --
I burned out.
Sometime in 2005 I started writing a story. I was on and off with it, but I worked on it for close to a year. I was 32,055 words into it (I just checked), so I’d invested a fair amount of myself and my time.
Then, after all of my reading and research and just before I went to the retreat in July, I had serious doubts about everything I’d written. The characters were too much like people I knew and although I actually did have a vision for the end of the story, I felt like I could do better. I felt like I’d gone into battle unarmed and it was better to surrender than to withdraw and retool.
I thought about a different story, and then another story. I wrote a couple of short stories.
Just before I went to the retreat in July, I had a story notion I was excited about and I started over again. I’ve been working on it ever since and I’ve been taking excerpts to workshop and I've been getting lots of feedback.
Then I hit a wall. I had a lot of work to do with my day job. The workshop forum was teaching me a lot, especially about editing. All of the sessions, classes, blog posts, craft books and DVDs (I have two on writing) had a lot to offer. The books I was reading inspired me, yet they also made me feel inadequate.
I lost confidence.
After I started the workshop process, I found myself endlessly revising and editing what I’d already written. New writing was coming slowly, if at all. I was self-conscious and worried so much about turning in pages that I couldn’t produce any more.
I went on vacation for a week and didn’t write.
When I came home, I opened up the manuscript I’d set aside and I read it, expecting it to be horrendous.
It really wasn’t all that bad. In fact, what I found was that the first manuscript sounded more like me. It’s rough, but it’s my voice. The characters felt more authentic. While I was working hard at the second story, I was editing my voice and my life experiences out of existence. I wanted my characters to be new and unique and different from me, but I’d subconsciously placed too much distance between myself and them.
Here’s a revelation that came to me. I read too many books that have been written by people who are completely unlike me. Most of the authors I love are people who have studied writing extensively, gotten MFAs and PhDs and teach writing. They tend to write stories with characters in them who are sort of like them. Not all of them, I suppose, but I’ve read (and loved) more books that take place in and around preparatory schools and colleges than you can shake a thesaurus at.
The truth is that there are very few college graduates in my family. I come from working class people. There are some exceptions, but not many. I was enlisted in the military for many years, which makes my background very different from most people and in particular it makes it different from most writers. Things that have touched my life and my family over the years include alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, suicide attempts, violence, sexual abuse, illness, death, poverty, neglect, closeted homosexuality, infidelity, divorce, crime and imprisonment – you name it.
For some reason, I think I believed that since I don’t read a lot about working class people and people with all of those messy problems, that I didn't want to write about characters shaped by those things. I thought I wanted to write stories about the people I liked to read about. The problem isn’t writing about them. The problem is that I can get into the heads of the more screwed up characters so much more easily.
That’s probably the reason that when I think about my favorite writers and books I’ve loved, I always get back to Ernie Hebert, the Dartmouth College professor who came from immigrant, working class roots and writes about working class people in New Hampshire. There is a copy of a speech he gave at an awards ceremony that brings me to tears every time I read it. The Dogs of March remains one of my favorite books of all time.
I’ve thought a lot since I got back from
We just have to tune everything out and finish that first shitty draft.
It sounds so simple, but it was so hard to see for such a long time.
A novelist is someone who finishes a novel. I am a person who could be stalled forever if I don’t stop analyzing, questioning, reading and tinkering.
Today, I gave myself permission to write crap. And I sat down and I wrote and before I knew it, I had pages. I don’t know if they’re any good or if they’ll ultimately stay or go and it doesn’t matter. I’m giving myself permission to write whatever comes out, every day until I get to the end.
I’ve learned enough to know that the most important thing for me to figure out is my process. I don’t know what that will be yet, but for now, it’s just to keep going and to finish.
Sphinx Ink linked to a great post by the writer, Timothy Hallinan and it has turned things around for me. Maybe it's even saved me. Of the many things I’ve read about writing, his points about finishing have hit home unlike anything else. He’s got some great stuff here that really resonates with me. He is the author of more than a dozen books and his most recent is the thriller, A Nail Through the Heart
I know that a lot of the people who stop by here are published and have finished one or more manuscript and then some are like me and haven’t done either. I’d love to hear thoughts from you all on the concept of getting to “The End”.