Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy

canstockphoto15407070The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.

I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.

Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.

canstockphoto12329206Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.

I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.

I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.

Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.

canstockphoto25064666In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.

It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.

I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.

canstockphoto4158276Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?

72 Comments on “Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy

  1. I feel you. You’re right about the doubt. But write on and you will reap because you are good, and your novel will show what’s its all about!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I was most struck by your insight that “the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it.” Maybe it’s not the Pythagorean Theorem, but it’s a truth we often overlook (or forget). And then, your examples of your garden and improv offer us an extension to that truth: even though we must fully commit, we must also be willing to let the work tell us where it is meant to go (even if that wasn’t our initial intent). You remind me, also, that certainty is overrated, and that stories are powerful and their power has nothing to do with their size, but their authenticity. As always, Michelle, you’ve given me plenty to mull as I go through my day. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad that I can give you mulling material. I’m sure there are mitigating circumstances to full commitment, but I also think it’s like a prenuptial agreement – if you’re already acting like the marriage might not work out, it might not work out. Perhaps, too, it is a reminder of Buddhist thought not to be invested in the outcome, but to be present in the process.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Its easy to miss the joy of the journey in those moments of intense and incredible doubt. Reading your words really helped today as I’ve struggled with finding the momentum to keep doing what I love. Thank you.

        Like

  3. I’m with Isabel Allende. Stick with the story you wrote. Sometimes it’s the small things that have the biggest impact. BTW I loved the new blog design.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m at a point of no return with the book – I think a lot of this is just jitters as I start sending it out to beta-readers and agents. Thanks for commenting on the blog layout, Alison – I haven’t changed it in five years, but I really like the cleaner look and wider reading area.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You need to do something to move anywhere. You do what seems right a the time, then if it does not come out as you planned then you move on, try again But if you did not start somewhere, you would achieve nothing. If you try you at least achieve a stepping stone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m reminded of Jane Austen, who wrote about her small life. We are all filled with universal truths. They will find their way up through the garden of your story.
    And my improv instructor told us to say “yes” to everything our acting buddies threw at us. Saying “yes” to your story, no matter where it takes you, seems like what you’re doing. All in.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s what I learned in improv, too. Saying “yes” meant being in it, in the moment, fully committed. I am definitely all in, because after all this time, I’d really like to start writing something else! It just ended up being the story I had to unload first.

      Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a book I read called “Overcoming Perfectionism” that talked about the concept of overt and covert perfectionists. It’s made me realize that I have worked hard to disguise my perfectionism, but you are what you are and truth will out in the end. Best to acknowledge and befriend it so it doesn’t make one completely miserable.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. AND….I find I have to watch out for the “commit fully to it” model…because I think that means doing more than I am doing, or more than I am capable of doing, or in some other twisted way creating a “perfect” commitment…I have decided that doing something is better than doing nothing. Even though my yard looks like crap…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps “judicious commitment” should be the goal. Choosing carefully what you commit to, before going all in. Sort of like picking your battles – it’s too exhausting to fix everything, so you have to be selective. And crap yards are sometimes the most healthy…

      Like

  7. As an English major I agree that reading about writing while writing is confusing. Welcome to my senior year of college! For me, all the ideas got mixed-up in my brain, leaving me tired and jumbled. I hadn’t thought of writing in the context of improv, but that makes sense. My one take-away from studying improv is that you always say “yes” to everything, just to see where things go next.

    Like

    • Yes! See, I’m getting the hang of it. I think of it as a way to trample over one’s inner critic, who is always inclined to naysay and stop a writer (or anyone) in their tracks. Since I have to fight the rule follower within, reading writing tips and guidelines is a surefire way to keep me from getting much writing done.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m committed to my current project, even though it will likely come to naught. Sometimes the completion is its own reward.

    Like

  9. I am an imperfect perfectionist too. I want my work on paper or on the PC screen to be perfect in every way, yet I am quite certain I fail miserably at it. Just to entertain someone with what I write never feels good enough. However, I often ask myself why this is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We all have undercurrents and the “never good enough” one can run pretty strong, depending on how one was raised or how our brains take in advertising (there’s always something or someone better) or what expectations we routinely set for ourselves. I fight this feeling every single day. Learning how to feel one is enough is a big challenge if you’ve ever been told you’re not. It’s not insurmountable, but even after years of awareness, I still find myself having to say “It’s enough” when my demons decide to run amok.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The world changes so rapidly, or appears to, that I’m with Rimbaud when he says, “It is necessary to be absolutely modern”. And I suppose we all want to help heal human wounds … interesting read, here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rimbaud struck me as a rather unhappy fellow, so I’m not sure I trust his sensibilities. Of course, miserable people throughout history have come up with all kinds of wisdom. Right now it seems that there are more wounds than healers, but I like to imagine any one of us is capable of repair and kindness.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree with your writing tip. I made that mistake and my manuscript has been gathering dust for three years now. Just get the story out…it will never be ‘perfect’ because your level of ambition is rising, but knowing you from here, I’m sure it is well worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Writing Expressing – TechNetLive

  13. If you don’t commit, you are on the path to quit. Literary pursuits are daunting, tiresome and downright excruciating, but with some new words written or changes made, you will witness your work blossom into a novel. Don’t surrender and never give up.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Michelle,

    I was feeling pretty down about me, writing, and life at the moment , so thought maybe starting a blog might help me focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t do. So here I am stumbling through WordPress, utterly clueless, when I came across a link to your blog. I do believe things happen for a reason and I think I was meant to come across your blog. Your writing really cheered me up as I appreciated the humour plus it was your sharing of your frustrations with writing that reminded me that you need to meet the challenge head on, or as you said, fully commit. I look forward to reading your blog in the future, providing I hit the right button to follow you!

    Like

    • I’m glad that something I wrote cheered you up. I’ve been blogging for five years and it started with just one little frightened post. It helped me get in the regular habit of writing, which has led to more writing. Sometimes it’s just easier to take things one post at a time. There are days when I feel victorious about writing and other days when I think, if only for a moment, to just pack it in. People always talk about writer’s block and the blank page, but I see it more as learning how to get out of my own way. Best wishes to you in writing and in blogging!

      Like

  15. Pingback: Menulis Novel: “Haruskah Saya Menulis Lebih Besar?” – PODA

  16. Beautifully written. Can we run an interview with you (on the craft of writing) on my blog?

    Like

  17. There are so many writing ideas that I’ve given up on, only because I thought they were not big enough or because it seemed like nobody would care enough to read. Never realizing that all of it mattered to me. Lately, I’ve started writing for myself and it is so much more liberating also I enjoy it way more than I did before.
    Reading this encourages me even more. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One thing I’ve learned over the years, is that the most clumsy effort resonates with people more than a polished work, if we are genuine and we treat our own subject with respect. That’s something entirely different than marketability or drumming up Likes. I’ve started lately thinking about that One Reader – the person who says “yeah, I get it” or “I feel a little less alone because of what you wrote.” If you need to think of audience, that would be the person. But you’re right, if you make something matter to you, it will often matter to someone else. Best wishes to you in your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I completely agree. Having a real connection with self often brings our way a real connection with others. People who resonate with our thoughts for real…that is way above the shallow bonds that are formed.
        Thank you, sending you lots of love. Keep sharing…it adds so much to our lives 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  18. Extremely well written article. I love the cadence of your writing, it flows generously and honestly. Great job, let me know when the book comes out.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Whoa, this is so lovely to read, you most definitely do have a fantastic voice with great authenticity. This is so motivational and retrospective. I just had to comment something. Reading this I feel ready to take on the world with my writing. Thank you for the brilliant post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This is such a refreshing post. I enjoyed reading the honesty in every word. Now with this in mind, I return to the outline of a story I have in progress. Thank you so much!

    Like

  21. Pingback: Committing to the Mistake and Writing in the Age of That Guy – NiaSharmaFiction

  22. Having had my own struggle with yards that don’t match my imagined wonderment and novels that are too small and stolid, I empathize with your wondering — and heartily agree about not reading books about writing when you’re trying to write your own story!

    Like

  23. I have felt the same. What is the relevance of a young adult romance novel in the grand scheme of war and politics and human rights? But the truth is that whilst I love a good fantasy epic, I don’t have the skills yet to write or sustain one. And as a reader, I enjoy both. So for now, I’m happy to create my small world of a few characters whose concerns are smaller and pettier, but hopefully will still bring a reader enjoyment.

    Like

    • On the flip side, if I imagine a world where everybody wrote weighty tomes and serious stories, that seems pretty depressing. It’s a skill to figure out what kind of writer one is and to go with it – doing the best we can at what we love. Best wishes to you in your writing!

      Like

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: