Keeping the Faith
Among the many wise things my many writing teachers have told me, perhaps the wisest was: “The only thing holding a story together from the time you write the first word to the time you finish the last is your faith in it.” A work-in-progress is a tender, precarious, fragile thing. I have encountered myriad enemies between the start and end of a piece of fiction: procrastination, distraction, writer’s block, loneliness, poverty, rejection, but none is more potent and perilous than self-doubt.
For me, the doubt looks something like this: I’m chugging along in the midst of a story, when suddenly I bobble a bit and my rhythm gets thrown off for one reason or another–maybe a ringing phone or a new email, maybe a grumbling belly or a crying baby–and when I get back in front of the writing again, something’s slightly off. I can’t quite find my momentum. Soon I’m beset with the creeping thoughts: “This is stupid” or “This is going nowhere” or “This is falling apart” or a personal favorite: “Famous writer x has written about this far better than I ever could.”
It used to be that such thoughts were creative quicksand for me. Once they began, I was sunk. As much as I tried to flail and struggle against them–pounding on my keyboard, rooting myself in my chair for hours, writing and rewriting and rewriting–I only seemed to make things worse. The doubt grew, the writing floundered and more often than not, the story got pitched into the garbage
I pitched a lot of stories into the garbage.
Breaking out of this pattern was a slow process, one that took much practice and patience. The first thing I learned to do was walk away from the writing once the thoughts began. I’m not enough of a Zen master to stop the thoughts completely. I’m one of those people who spend meditation classes with my eyes closed, thinking I’m not meditating. I’m not meditating. Is everyone else here meditating? My thighs hurt. Someone smells. I’m not meditating. I am decidedly poor at controlling my thinking.
But what I could do, I discovered, is react better to the thoughts. The self-doubt, if I stay in front of the computer, puts me in a tailspin. I get in a panic to fix things, though everything I write at that moment looks totally fraudulent and pedestrian and crappy to me. So fixing is impossible, and destruction is dangerously easy.
Instead, I force myself to step away from the fiction and go do something semi-productive. Watching TV or surfing the net isn’t active enough; I’ll continue to obsess about the writing. Instead, doing something as simple as taking a shower or going on a run or vacuuming the carpet works to get my mind focused on a different task or give my body a different sensation than sitting stooped over my desk. I cannot count the number of times that a new idea has suddenly been jogged loose mid-shower, mid-run or mid-vacuum, the moment I have truly disengaged from the writing–and therefore from the doubt and panic–and let my mind relax.
The second thing that’s helped me is to recognize that every work in its unfinished state is kind of stupid. Really. I cringe whenever someone asks me what I’m currently writing, because I’m never entirely sure what a story is until I’ve finish it. And to describe it mid-stream is strange and awkward and incomplete. I end up stammering things like, “There are brothers. And a pregnant woman. And a fish.” And it just sounds rather dumb. Because it kind of is. Because I’m describing something that’s not yet fully formed or put-together.
An example to make my point. Here are some thoughts I jotted down for a recent idea:
The guy behind the counter at the quikee mart is hassling me. Accent. Patchy, sunken cheeks. Won’t let her hang the poster of Danny. Danny, smiling, football uniform, ball under one armpit. Came to do the posters to get away from parents. Already been to the Borders, the Safeway, the xx and xx. Got to drive their car. Only time they let me drive their car.
When you read this, does it sound smart? No. Does it sound coherent, even? Barely. There are shifts from first to third person. There are sentence fragments. There are confusing ideas. Who’s Danny? Who’s the “me?”
Well, it turns out Danny is an 18-year-old boy who went missing one summer night. The “me” is Lydia Pasternak, his 15-year-old sister, who would turn out to be the narrator of my debut novel, The Local News.
These were the very first ideas I wrote down on a scrap of paper. From that scrap, I wrote my first scene:
And all of it began with those few messy lines. Did I have any inkling a book would be born from them? Heck no. That’s where the faith piece becomes so important. You just have to take the proverbial leap of it to see where an idea will land. Not all ideas turn into books. Even less turn into good books. But that’s the key–you never know which ones will blossom until you fling yourself headlong into them.
So now when the self-doubt tells me an idea is stupid, I find it incredibly empowering to be able to say back, “Hell yeah, this idea is stupid. It’s a mess right now. It hardly even makes sense. But it’s early. Give me a few days–or weeks or years–with it and let me see what I can do. I’ll get back to you then.”
And amazingly enough, the doubt often listens to me now. It shuts up. It leaves me where I want to be left: alone at my desk with my stupid mess of lovely words.
Miriam Gershow is a novelist, short story writer and teacher. Her debut novel, The Local News, was published by Spiegel & Grau in February 2009. It has been called “unusually credible and precise" and "deftly heartbreaking” by The New York Times, as well as “an accomplished debut” (Publisher’s Weekly) with a “disarmingly unsentimental narrative voice,” (Kirkus Reviews). Visit Miriam's website at http://miriamgershow.com/