Back From the Deep

I haven’t posted in awhile, mostly b/c I’ve been incredibly busy writing an essay I was invited to contribute to an anthology called GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS, which is due out late this summer. What a bear! Who knew writing a personal essay was so hard? As one Writer Friend put it while I was complaining about how lost and muddled I felt, “It’s not that hard … it’s like writing an email.”

Yeah, right.

I knew what I wanted to write about pretty much the instant I was approached for the collection. Then I started writing, and it started falling apart.

I began working on the essay three months before it was due. The first draft was eight pages of false starts. Seriously. Many many first paragraphs, a couple stabs at an outline—and since I don’t like to outline at the outset, you can see how desperate I felt.

The second draft was longhand—I was so freaked out by my inability to move forward in type that I chained myself to a table at Starbucks with a pen and paper and didn’t let myself get up until I had something resembling an essay, complete with beginning, middle, end.

The third draft took its shape from the second draft, but then I kept moving things around until the fifth draft. At which point I showed it to Husband, and he moved more things around and made me pull some stuff from the first draft. Husband thought this draft six he’d helped create was pretty good.

I wasn’t convinced, but I also wasn’t able to see the forest for the fucking trees at that point, so I took the sixth draft to Group. And they HATED it. Really really hated it. Which, to be perfectly honest, is why I love my Group. They tore it apart, but they asked a lot of important and interesting questions that had me scribbling tons of notes for the new version. I went home convinced I had to start from scratch, and completely freaked out that I now had only thirty days in which to bring this thing to life.

I had six drafts worth of not the most useful material, but at least I’d vomited up a lot of information—so I went through those drafts, looking to see if any of the spit-up was of use. Some was, most wasn’t—and in fact, in most cases, what was least useful was the prose I loved the best. That’s usually the way, actually—really sparkling words on the page can be a total roadblock to creation. You fall in love with those sentences, and then you start carving everything else around them—everything else has to be twisted and pulled to service those fabulous words. What generally happens is you then have six great lines and everything else is a mangled mess. Which, honestly, is what I think had happened here. I’d fallen into my own trap.

So finally, writing an outline came in handy. Drawing on the questions Group had posed, I made a list of points that added up to something new, and started drafting new stuff from scratch. Then I hit another roadblock—for a bunch of personal reasons, I stopped being able to concentrate on my work for more that forty-five minutes to an hour each day. For a woman used to writing for four or five hours at a stretch, this was very disconcerting. How on earth was I going to finish this new draft, and revise it, and get it to Group, and revise it again, and polish it, when I could only work for an hour a day?

Answer: by working an hour a day. Baby steps are better than not trying to walk at all.

In six days, I had a seventh completely brand new draft. It even had a new title! Three days later, I had draft eight. Draft nine followed two days later, and went out to Husband and Group, having been retitled yet again (I think the total number of titles chosen and discarded over the course of this project has been somewhere around eight).

And Group liked it. They liked it! They really liked it!

Because I had to be sure no one would be offended by the use of their real names, I then sent it to the people I’d been writing about—and they liked it, too.

And you know what? I like it. Three months of hard, frightening, confusing, voice and talent-questioning work later, I kind of like this essay. I hated it for awhile, I really really did, I couldn’t bear to imagine what the editors of this book were going to think of it and me and I just wanted crawl under a rock and wait for the deadlines to pass. I wanted to go back in time and un-sign that honestly pretty well-paid contract (I’m a girl whose used to taking payment in free copies, if you know what I mean). But now I kind of like it.

Here’s hoping the editors do, too.