This morning I attended a bridal shower brunch for a very dear friend. She's a TV writer, very successful, and no one is more deservedly so -- she began as a receptionist and wrote her way up, and it's been a thrilling rise for everyone who loves her. Not surprisingly, many of the women at her shower were also TV writers, and that would have been just fine with me (I've never ever wanted to be a TV writer, I hate collaborative writing and I hate writing to deadline) had one of them not mentioned she'd just left her job to write a novel. That would probably have been okay, too, if she hadn't said it with such JOY, as in "I'm writing a book, and it's going great, I'm so happy, I've been at it a month and I'm hoping to find an agent by the end of the year" yadda yadda yadda.
And something about that just knocked me flat. Maybe it was her supreme confidence (which I wanted to believe was naivete) -- god knows this has not been the summer of Supreme Confidence for me. The combination of sun and kids running around and also the fact that my regular writing schedule has been sort of fucked up due to uncontrollable extenuating circumstances has made my sense of committment but more so my belief in my own abilities shrivel up and bake like a raisin. Add to that the "middle of the manuscript" problem, and it makes for a fine summer mess.
What, you ask, is the "middle of the manuscript" problem? Well, I have found over a long career that I tend to start strong -- disciplined, positive, productive, creative until, well, I hit the middle of the manuscript. Somewhere in the middle, I stall. I always stall. I know what comes AFTER the middle -- but for some reason, the connection between the START and the END goes blank. I begin to wonder if the beginning is any good, and if the end actually makes sense, and if maybe the whole project isn't completely empty or wrongheaded in the first place.
Then I dry up. I stop writing, but I keep showing up at my desk, and I beat myself up for the nothing that goes on there. Mostly nothing happens there because, though I'm at the desk, I find it impossible to actually open the appropriate document, so not surprisingly, I don't write a word.
So this summer, after much tsuris of the type described above, I eventually fixed on another tactic: I decided to work on stories for awhile, at least until I was ready to go back to the novel (in my head, ready = Labor Day, for some reason). Stories seemed manageable -- theoretically, they're easier to start and finish in shorter periods of time.
So I started a new story (now nearing 10,000 words, way past story length) and told myself I couldn't get back to the novel until I had COMPLETED a draft of the story. No more "stopping in the middles," I told myself, following a browsing of my files that revealed several half-drafts of various projects, "completing this story will give me a sense of accomplishment that will send me back to the novel feeling more confident -- finishing something will remind me I know how to do this, after all."
It's been tough. I constantly second-guess this choice, and wonder, on those days when I think "I should be working on the novel today," that maybe, indeed, I should go work on the novel. But then I wonder, "isn't going back to the novel while my story is middle of the manuscript just another act of procrastination against finishing the story?"
It's been a whole summer like that.
For the moment, I've decided to let process trump everything else, so I've made myself stick to the new story, and will do so until I reach THE END (hopefully this week). Then I will return to the novel -- and for now on, any time I want to stop work on the novel, I have to be AT THE END of a chapter, and I have to turn to another STORY and write TO THE END.
It's all about getting to the end, practicing completion.
Slow and steady, does, eventually, someday, over time, win the race.
As for my horribly depressing brunch experience, here's what I did next:
I went home, made a cup of coffee, and opened up THE STORY. I drank coffee and I wrote 527 words and followed them up with notes for the scenes I think follow next.
And what would you know -- that fixed everything. I did my work, and it felt great.