Sustainable Writers Don’t Know What They’re Writing (at least half the time!)

“So what’s your new project?”

At holiday gatherings, people have been tossing this question my way like a football before settling back on the sofa for a little back-and-forth chat.

My stomach lurches, though, when I see that conversational volley coming.

I don’t have a neat, easily graspable little ball to toss back, just at this moment.

Sometimes, it takes a long time for a project to evolve and finally take a form that’s easy for other people to catch. One day, this shape-shifting thing I’m working on will be so distinct that I can convey its essence in a sound-bite. At least, I hope so.

And maybe on that day, I’ll be able to enjoy holiday parties again. But until then, well—it’s just uncomfortable. It’s awkward, as they used to say on the Seinfield show. Sustainable writers have to be able to tolerate ambiguity and this kind of awkwardness.

A big part of writing is discovering what you think and what you really want to say about your topic. It’s a long game—or more like a series of soccer matches, with some surprise plays and disappointing drives to goal. Some players (i.e. characters in your story or points in your argument) will not pan out and may even get benched for the season.

But I’d argue that this element of not knowing exactly what we are doing is as essential as it is frustrating. The element of discovery, at least for me, is what keeps me showing up. It’s what makes me come back to writing desk before dawn, what makes me lose all sense of time passing in libraries and archives. But it’s important to admit that not really knowing where all this work is going exactly can be disorienting, even disheartening. It can make you feel like an idiot at holiday parties. And worse.
So, I’ll say it again. Sustainable writers have to be able to tolerate ambiguity. And not for a night, for a week, or a month, but for the whole season. And, how long exactly, a reasonable person may ask, is this mystic season that it takes to write a book? Or an article? Or even a sonnet?

The only true answer to that bitch of question, my friend, is this: it takes as long as it takes.

If you’ve read earlier posts or heard me speak at workshops, you’ve probably heard my spiel about planning and the power of habit to sustain writing practice.  Showing up at your desk regularly–as if it were a freaking job or something!–really is more than half the battle of getting something done. Aspiring writers wait for inspiration.  Professional writers just sit down and write: that is the familiar line. And it bears a lot of truth.

Lately, however, I’ve been reminded of the inescapable fact that the creative process is not a checklist.  The route to the final work cannot be found on Google maps. We have to stumble blindly, grope in the dark,  and maybe even crack our heads on the occasional doorframe before we arrive and know, exactly, where we are.

Spending time in an archive a few weeks ago, rapt in exploration of a journal of a woman I am writing about–Charlotte Forten Grimke–I had to admit once again that I don’t fully know why I am doing this. That mystery can be infuriating in our results-driven culture. How can I spend precious time–especially when time is, in a real sense, money–on something that I cannot see yet in a final form? What the final product will be, if any?

But an equally pressing question for real writers is this: how can I not spend this time?.  It is not knowing ironically that generates energy for writing.  Curiosity, the desire for discovery, for revelation, is a driving force that sustains writing.

Why would we keep showing up at the desk, after all, if we knew exactly what we would see on the screen after an hour of plying our fingers to the keys?  Sometimes writing is like doing the laundry. And sometimes it is more like planting seeds and waiting to see what comes up eventually. I hate that part, the lack of certainty, the risk. . . .  But I love it too.



Sustainable Writers Don’t Know What They’re Writing (at least half the time!) — 2 Comments

  1. This entry has given me sustenance as I stumble and bumble through a long book manuscript! Thank you for acknowledging that sometimes, at least, the process is messy and difficult and unpredictable. I think we used to know this about writing but have forgotten it at least in academe in our pressure to publish and in our grant-writing, grant-seeking, increasingly professionalized presentations which become, perhaps, crisper and more confident but less thrilling in the end.

    • Wow–thanks so much! Sorry to be late in responding. I actually–ashamed to say–found I didn’t have time to sustain the “Sustainable Writer Blog” once I took a new job. But I blog there–in somewhat the same spirit–for a company Academic Writing & Coaching. Good luck with your own work!—Amy

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