“Man cannot discover new oceans, unless he has the
courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Batten down the hatches, everyone. I’m starting a new book and am chock full of maritime metaphors, as is often the case when I’m sitting down to that ever intimidating blank screen.
For me, starting a new book is similar to getting on the SS Minnow with Gilligan and the Skipper. There’s a very good chance that rough water will be forthcoming, and a shipwreck will more likely than not set things back. Most writers know this going into a new project. Those of us who plot, clutch our trusted outlines to our chest, even though we will ditch it midway and replot the entire second act. Many of us do all the laundry, make meals to freeze so we can hit the computer when we come home for our day jobs. Those who are pantsers (write their stories without an outline), sit down chock full of ideas and let the story unfold. I take my hat off to these writers. If I tried to “pants” my way through a book, I’d surely wind up in hospital. No matter your style, the path to completing that coveted first draft is a bumpy, stormy, turbulent ride of joy, tears, and often paralyzing self-doubt.
Writing fiction – and learning to write fiction – takes a long time for most people. I recall an essay by Ira Glass (of This American Life fame). I’m paraphrasing, but his take on writing –or any creative endeavour – was that you start out as a beginner with good taste developed from the books you read. You decide to write your own book, finish it, and realise that it is not nearly up to the standards of the books that you have read and enjoyed. You write yet another book. Yes, you see improvement, but your sophisticated taste reminds you that your work is still not quite up to snuff. Most people give up at this point. Ira Glass’ point – and I wholeheartedly agree with him – is that you shouldn’t give up! Keep writing. Keep painting. Keep making movies. If you keep practicing, eventually your ability will catch up to your taste.
Here’s Ira’s essay, for those of you who are interested:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
I have written four books – book five is now underway – and each story has taught me something deep and meaningful about my own place in this crazy world. Has my writing ability caught up to my taste? Not even close. But I’m definitely getting there. When I’m two hundred pages in and the usual questions come burgeoning forth (Is this book horrible? What if no one likes it? What if my publisher doesn’t want it? What if this book ends my career?), the only thing to do is keep writing. When I feel like I’m in the middle of a stormy sea, far away from the shore, I dig into the story knowing that the words will keep me afloat. When I push away from the dock, I am more than ready to get lost at sea. I know that only through being lost can one truly appreciate the magnificence of finding the way. And I am most definitely not giving up!
Who’s starting a new project? Would love to hear about your process and how you deal with ups and downs.