“How’s the writing going?”

IMG_1214 On the one hand, I’m excited that people are asking me this question. Really. Most people who ask me this question are well-intentioned and sincere. They want to know how this new writing life is working out for me. It’s the polite thing to do. You would ask someone in a different profession, “How’s work?” So, “how’s the writing going?” Why not? Really, what else are you supposed to ask a writer?

So, small confetti toss and break out the margaritas: hey, I’m a writer! People ask me this question now!

On the other hand, to ask a writer how the writing is going…..let’s say that it’s, um, anxiety-provoking. I asked my Facebook friends (yes, not-writing again) how they answer that question. Their responses ranged from anxiety to terror to deflection (“I turn the question around and ask them how they are doing”) to deception (“I just LIE”). My friend Christine’s written a wonderful blog post about how she responds when people ask her how her novel is going. Her description is true and raw and honest, almost a mini-lyric essay where she compares her novel-in-progress to a gestating fetus. It’s better than I am making it sound, I promise. And there’s a link to a great Family Guy video about writing.

See, there are problems with asking the writer-me a question like “How’s the writing going?”

There’s the hyperoverachiever me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a thousand words today, and that I only erased 5% of those words.

There’s the listmaker me, who would like to tell you that I’ve given myself a ton of short assignments, and I’m just going down the list now, making a nice check mark after each one.

There’s the linear thinker me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a chapter a week, one after another, merrily rolling along, words pouring out of me faster than the water over Snoqualmie Falls. And I started with Chapter One, and I’ll finish with Chapter Ten, the last chapter! Honestly, I had to cut myself off at ten chapters. (TOTAL lie.)

There’s the ambitious me, the attached to attention and achievement me, who would LOVE to tell you that you’re going to see the finished product sometime somewhere very soon, coming to your bookstore or computer screen or mobile device or movie theater (or all four!) sometime soon.

Each of these me’s has some serious issues, as you can see. They would be lying if I let them answer your question. All of them struggle mightily to answer this question. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know why it feels this way, or to remember I have all of these issues.

But that’s why I’ve learned to pause before I answer.

As the Supremes put it, you can’t hurry love—no, you just have to wait.

*****

Longer projects like this book are hard on a writer like me: I want to show you pieces along the way, I want to have someone to cheer me on at pit stops. Here’s where something like a blog comes in handy for us writer types; there’s a reason why there are so many of us, writers who blog. A blog lets us churn out some kind of achievement, even as small as it might seem in some places. It lets us talk about the process. It lets us try out pieces along the way, and (if we’re lucky) we get some feedback from the ether. It’s our personal training plan, our dress rehearsal, our soft opening.

I want to tell you that my book is almost done. But there are at least two more big sections to write. And then I have to look at it all over again, to make sure that there’s a heart, a core, that will take the reader by the hand (or gut) and not let go for a few hundred pages. It will need to explode, or transform, by the end of the book. And eventually I will have to pull out the stitches that show you where I’ve done that work, so that it all feels like magic.

All of that, that’s work. It is process, and because it is messy and nonlinear, it is not something I can sound-byte for a small-talk conversation very well. I don’t think I’m supposed to, actually. I am supposed to keep my head down, and work: as Cheryl Strayed says, “to lean hard into the work and not the anxiety.” People probably don’t want to hear that much about process, about how it is at times bliss and at times ridiculously hell, and most of the time even worse because it is flat and mediocre. That is, unless, they are also writers.

The truth is that for me the artistic process is, the best creative processes are, exhausting. They involve the tiniest synapses of the brain, the rawest chambers of the heart, the feathery cilia of the lungs. (Not all of my writing is for the book: there are essays, and book reviews, all the way down to Facebook status updates and tweets. But I want my best writing, my A-game, for the book.) I can’t write my best without access to all of that, sometimes all at once. I think that’s why my best writing started as a present for someone else: there’s heart behind what I want to say, and there’s commitment, and there’s devotion to the craft. Usually when I do that kind of work, though, I’ve been building up to it through smaller things and pieces most of the way: a kind of personal training. I’ve taken notes, yes. I may have read something that makes me cry or brings me close to tears. I have spent hours rearranging mental Polaroids on the cork board in my head—this scene first, or this one? I have thought and pictured and remembered hard with all of my senses, trying to take you wherever I’m going.

There are the seemingly idle times, too. I have taken long walks. I have pondered in the shower. I have made jars of jam, not because I need to but because I want to. I have taken pictures with my camera phone: another way to find images and feed them to my subconscious. I have waken up from dreams with just that image that I need to save, right now, before I forget. I have stared out of numerous cafe windows. I have read books and books and books for months before bedtime, and I have browsed in snatched minutes at the library or bookstore. It does not look like work, or what our culture is used to recognizing as work. (Make no mistake, behind the “how’s the writing going?” question can also lurk the surprisingly powerful and devastating question, “what do you do all day?”)

So I have been afraid, and I have been terribly sad, and cranky. Sometimes there are doubts and questions raining on my psyche. Something like the passive-aggressive Seattle mist crap™ that falls nine months out of our year. Not enough to stop me from going out altogether, but enough to make me crave anywhere but here in February. I have also been terrified, fingers growing colder as I type, heart pounding faster, fear of typing, of hitting save, of being read. Very few people want to hear about that part of the work.

There are the times when I have no idea where I’m going, or what I’m doing. Those times are more frequent than I’d like to admit. I’m a bit of a control freak at times, and that uncertainty petrifies me. Usually—coincidence?— that is when someone asks me how the writing is going, and it is awful to say that I have no idea, so I’ll typically respond with a simple “It’s going.”

Every once in a while there’s the umami bit of it all, the mystery that happens when I’m able to get out of the way. It’s the flash of insight (large or small) that I could never discover any other way, the image that crystallizes everything I’ve been hoping to say, the question that surprises me as I ask it. It’s when I say what I really want to say–sometimes, the disconnect between an artist’s vision  and their execution of that vision is enough to drive them crazy. Those voices, those me’s that long to tell you about the product, not the process?—those voices sometimes shut the hell up while I’m working.

And then, only then, I can say that I’ve written something good, and it’s close to finished.

Then all of it is my work, the process and the product, and I love it. Then the skies are clear, and blue. Then I’m slogging through murky but receding floodwaters, a storm survivor finally making her grateful way back home.

6 Comments

  1. Amen, as they say. I think with shorter pieces it’s so much easier to answer the question because the work typically goes a bit faster. It’s easier to say “oh, just finished a blog post” than it is to say “well, I’m about 15,000 words into my novel and I’m stuck because I realized that I don’t know anything about the protagonist’s love interest as I create a character pretty removed from my own experience that I need to research and understand more.”

  2. You know that I don’t always comment, yet am reading with love in my heart for my friend whose inner voice I get to hear in these posts, even as I knew that’s what she sounded like all along. Today, I came mostly close to hating myself–I never hate myself, but I always come close in August, when I am no longer making “good use” of summer, when re-reading all of the L.M. Montgomery _Emily_ books (which might be good for you to re-read right now!) no longer seems enriching but like a way to avoid doing something useful (school planning / conference paper) or even creative (starting my own blog). How can I not write when I have what all the world wishes for, aloud and in union–TIME? Why did I order another dress online instead? Some times, I tell myself that I am storing up Life for those dark months ahead, but mostly, in August, I feel Life slipping away, away, away, the beautiful sea glass getting pulled back out into the sound, along with all the debris and grey rocks of the most boring parts of the day. And then, because my needs are really that simple, I’ll run into a friend and feel better. I want you to know that the first part of this entry is the part I think of when I think of you: Hooray! I’m a writer!

    • Dearest. I really should reread the Emily books. Maybe you should read the Betsy-Tacy Emily book (Emily of Deep Valley), in which that Emily decides she should “muster her wits in her own defense” in order to combat depression. (I really like that one, for some reason; perhaps it’s the Villette of that series.) August here is about the summer slipping away, but it’s also about the light slipping away. So, for us, let’s prescribe more summer, more light, more of each other. Needs really are that simple. Love. And thank you for reading, always.

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