Thursday, July 10, 2008

Work in Progress: Patience, Grasshopper

I’ve been taking a break from writing, using the time to read a lot of novels and start researching my next novel. But, at a certain point, enough is enough. So this week I decided to get back to real writing.

Now, keep in mind that I’ve been away from serious writing for about a month. And before that, I had spent a year or so purely revising, which is “writing,” of course, but which is very different than coming up with new material, that first draft writing. For me revising is my favorite part of the process, and the first draft part the most torturous (“it’s all so crappy”—yes, because it’s not DONE yet, because it’s always crappy at this point, because you need to REVISE it, because it's a FIRST DRAFT).

So, how would one approach a return to the computer in this case?

Here’s how NOT to approach a return to the computer in this case: I decided to write a personal essay. I had what I thought was a good idea and it seemed like it might be fun to write something different. I forgot that I’ve written, what, maybe three personal essays in my life. They are fun—but also a VERY different form, and it’s a form that doesn’t always come naturally to me. (What do you mean, I can’t make up a character? What do you mean I have to reveal deep personal embarrassing things that actually happened to me, that everyone will know about?)

I spent an hour or so slopping through my good idea and ended up with several pages of a sentimental, tedious, irrelevant college reminiscence that would be of interest to an audience of, oh, let’s say ONE: me. Ugh.

After some back-and-forth in my head about whether I should just push through, and a fair amount of time berating myself for giving up just because things were a little “hard,” I decided to switch over to fiction. Instead of working on some nice little story that I’d had in mind for a while, I decided to leap into an intricately structured, semi-gimmicky, experimental story that would require an iron hand and a perfectly wrought tone if there were any hope of carrying it off.

Hmmm…when one is rusty, it’s kind of hard to latch into that perfectly wrought tone. This I gave about 45 minutes, and the result wasn’t even of interest to me.

Feeling frantic, I abandoned that and started wondering if I’d ever write a word again. Should I become an accountant? A web designer? Darn that Starbucks for closing 600 shops…now the barista option also was suddenly more difficult.

Then I remembered a story idea I’d had sometime last year, a full, developed story that I’d imagined in my head as I was sitting alone in a Chinese restaurant. Scrabbling around on my desk for the scrap of paper where I’d written my extensive notes on this “perfect” story, I found that, unfortunately, the extensive notes consisted of one line, the opening. The beautiful story in my mind was pouf-gone, but the opening line was evocative, so I started with that.

Immediately, I felt better. It wasn’t easy to write this story—and things quickly and definitely deviated from the forgotten “perfect” story I’d imagined—and I could tell that I’d have to clean up a lot of crud later—and I wasn’t sure which tangents would pay off and which would have to be cut…but this was something I could actually do. I was not asking too much of myself on my first time out. I had given up on the grand ideas, on forcing myself to produce something remarkable and startling. I was easing back into the process, not expecting the (alleged) perfection of revision, but simply letting myself flow into the writing, with patience for myself and above all, kindness.

Whatever happens with this story ultimately, at least it has gotten me going and reminded me of why I write. And it’s staved off the CPA classes for now.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.