The terror and the joy of writing

Respub3I feel like I’ve been living in a cave since December, just me and the dogs and CR and mute trips with my Shuffle to the gym to run.  I’ve slept like the dead every night since mailing and taken naps in between.  I’ve read three novels this week.  Bought a few more (this is my sickness, my terrible habit and I have tried and tried and can’t break it. No matter how many novels arrive in my mailbox for review, no matter how often I go to the library, there is some essential part of me that must go into bookstores and fondle books and buy some of them.  Many of them.  Some I’ll never even read, but I justify this by saying someone else will get the benefit, since I give them away eventually).

This morning, I sat in my office with the window slightly open and there blew in a scent of rain and greenness.  I think a daffodil might bloom tomorrow.

The terror is gone.  The pressure is gone.  I am in that blissful state of having written.

A good writing friend is starting the journey with a new book.  She calls nearly every day, and tells me the story and what the next step is.  She asks a question.  I reassure her that it sounds great.  She hangs up and starts writing.  The next day, she calls again.  "Okay, but what about…."  she asks.  She talks it out, tracing the journey from the start of the book to this new point.  She speaks some of the best lines aloud, gifts that capture some magic she didn’t know was going to arrive, a connection, a solidity that reassures her.  She goes back to writing. 

At some point, she’ll gain some footing, some confidence in the process, and she won’t call very often.  Until the end, when again she’ll call regularly, to reassure herself that she does know how to do this, how to begin and end. 

On the last day before I mailed Elena and co. into the world, I called my friend and said, in a thin, exhausted voice, "I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t figure out where the end is. And I keep taking a wrong turn and I only have five pages and–"

She said, "Tell me about it."

So I talked it out, the last things, the final ideas, the Big Revelation—  "Oh," I said, tears gathering in my eyes.  "Oh. That. That’s it. Thank you, thank you." 

She said, "Go. Go write it down."  She knew I’d been taking wrong turns out of fear, that was all.  That I needed someone to be there, holding my hand in that last hour of giving birth.  As I wrote (crying into my towel, which is my habit and the way I know the ending is right) I knew she was there, maybe eating lunch or reading a book or getting out to exercise, but with me in spirit. She hardly even spoke in my big rush of talk, but I needed someone to make the last bit of the journey with me.

When she called yesterday, I told her that I thought she was worrying too much, that she needed to go down into the basement and cut the duct tape she’s wrapped around the Girls, let them out to play.  And she said, "Oh, yeah. I do, you’re right!" But really, she just needed not to be alone through this.  She needed to share her terror.

The hard part of writing is not thinking of ideas for books, or finding the best plotting method or ways of developing character.  It’s not the challenge of trying to be fresh and real over and over.  It’s not casting your pearls before swine. 

It’s showing up at the page, day in, day out, to ruin perfectly brilliant ideas with your mortal limitations.  We all, always, ruin the perfect vision.   The minute we begin, we start to ruin it, and by the end, we’ve demolished that shining city on the hill that we thought we glimpsed, once upon a time.

There are tricks to it, actually.  Tricks to showing up and staying with it.   Over the years, I have come to talk books out with my friend.  She talks them out with me.   It used to be my mother, but we don’t have as much time anymore—

(and…OH!! there came a funny sound as I typed that last bit, and I had to stop and listen….and it’s rain pouring  on the roof, another thaw, another sign of spring and new things…oh, it’s lovely!)

–and over time, my friend and I found this encouraging habit. Don’t talk too much, of course.  You can talk away the magic of a book, satisfy the storytelling center by telling it all too often (or wrong, which is why I hate synopses, though I do have to write them).

Some other prosaic ways of dealing with terror:

–Instead of trying to ignore them, stop and listen to the chatter of the editors and harridans giving you hell in your mind.  What are they saying?  Who are you afraid of offending? Who are you hoping to impress? (I often find I’m writing each book for one particular person.  It’s not the same person every time, but by clarifying that goal, I can get a lot closer to the vision the book is trying to impart).   Who might not love you anymore if you write this book, or conversely, if you don’t write it well enough?

If you feel the terror welling up, stop and listen.  Put your hands in your lap and see who is talking.  Parent, teacher, child?  Friend, beloved author, editor who hated your first book? Just noticing can do the trick believe it or not. 

But if the nattering noise is still bothering you, spend some time writing out your fears.  Start with some sentences like, "What’s the worst thing that could happen here?"   and "I am afraid of making a fool of myself by_____________" and "If I write this book, _______might get mad at me."

–Set a timer for 20 minutes and write like the wind.  Don’t stop, don’t judge, just get moving.  Do it over and over again until you reach the end of the book.

–Similarly, write by hand in a notebook, or change the external environment.  If you usually write at your computer, take your laptop to a park or a coffeeshop.

—Remember, the writing happens as you’re writing.  We begin with a vision, an idea and a direction, but the process is partly one of discovery.  Allow yourself to discover the story as you go.   Planning is okay, but leave some room for the joy of creation, too. 

—Don’t worry, you’ll ruin it.  The writer part of you can see that shining vision, that perfect book that could be if only your talents could equal it.  But we all see that vision and we all fall short.  ALL of us. 

Happily, our failed vision is often quite lovely.  The Last of the Mohicans, say.  Or EAT, PRAY, LOVE, the lovely book by Elizabeth Gilbert that I’ve been using in all my classes and talks lately.

This afternoon, talking with the clerk who sold me my phone, I had a chance to say that I was a writer.  It always elicits a surprised and slightly abashed reaction.  "Would I know you or somethign you’ve written?" they ask.  I tell them to wander down to the bookstore where they’ll find my books on the shelves.   

Often they say, "Oh, I’d love to write." 

And I always say the same thing, "It’s the best job in the world. Seriously. I sit in a room and make things up and they PAY me."  The. Coolest. Job. Ever.

Which is something to remember when the terror gets you.  This is a seriously cool job.  For all the terror, for all the angst and worry, there are the moments of realizing that you got it RIGHT.  That scene, that moment, that energy.  If you stick with it, you’ll get a letter from somebody someday that says, "Wow, that was just what I needed," and it’s not that your ego is then stoked, it’s that you’ve communicated, intimately, with another human being you’d never have met otherwise.  Maybe offered some hope or peace or entertainment.   In a way, you get to hold the hand of someone you might not meet any other way, ever.

Holy cow.  That’s cool.  It takes courage, sure it does.  But you can do it.  I know you can.

9 thoughts on “The terror and the joy of writing

  1. Thanks! Just what I needed to hear tonight. I think I’ll stick a post-it to the top of my computer when I write–“Don’t worry, you’ll ruin it.”

    The strange and cool thing that occurs to me as I type that mantra is that it has two meanings depending on how you read it–both quite profound.

  2. Thanks Barbara. Useful, interesting. Lots to think about. I like that idea about knowing you will ruin something. It’s a bit of a relief.

  3. Barbara, this is such a wonderful, inspiring post! And so true. I have a friend like yours, and we share our writing process, and brainstorm our way out of plot holes, and talk each other through the fear. It’s wonderful and I feel so lucky to have found her.
    There’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song/poem that I love — “dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.”

    The other best thing about this job is the friends you make.
    Thank you.

  4. Oh, wow, Julie. You are so right on the two meanings!

    Keziah, it is a relief, isn’t it?

    Hey, Anne! Love that quote. Dance me through the panic. Yes.

  5. Barbara,
    I loved your words:
    “It’s showing up at the page, day in, day out, to ruin perfectly brilliant ideas with your mortal limitations. We all, always, ruin the perfect vision. The minute we begin, we start to ruin it, and by the end, we’ve demolished that shining city on the hill that we thought we glimpsed, once upon a time.”

    As I’m presently ruining yet another perfect vision, I’m heartened to read that someone else understands about doing the same. Thank you for the insight. I will just pick myself up and demolish a bit more tomorrow. Eventually I’ll be done, the vision will be gone and, with luck, a book — albeit a less than perfect one — will be there in its place.

  6. Rebecca

    Loved this.

    Thank you.

  7. MelissaB


    Thanks for posting this! I really enjoyed it. I wrote a little bit on my own blog a couple of weeks ago about the frustration of having a wonderful vision materialize in my head only to mangle it in the course of wrestling it to the page. It’s good to know that I’m not alone–but especially good to know that there’s hope. : )


  8. Barbara, a dear friend just sent me the link to your post. She knew it was just what I needed to hear at the moment and she was dead right. Thank you! What intrigues me is that intellectually you can recognise the emotional stages of the writing process yet every time it feels like the first time all over again.

    I’m off now to write a few more imperfect pages.


  9. Hooray, Annie. Hope you enjoyed the process a bit.

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