Doubts

It’s been a long couple of weeks in my writing world. On the one hand, I’ve worked more actively on specific writing projects than I have in years, especially on fiction. Last week alone, I generated thousands of words on a novel I’ve had in mind for years; this week, I’ve embarked on a new project in a genre I never even considered attempting before, and I’m excited about what lies ahead of me.

At the same time—and maybe as a consequence of the new energy—I’ve also become more aware of the writing time I’ve lost over the years. It gives me at times a sense of urgency, which I think is good. But in the past couple of days, it has also given rise to doubt. In particular, I have begun to yearn for voices of encouragement.

I’ve been fortunate to receive praise for past writing, managed to publish a couple of stories years ago, and been complimented about my ability. I know, because I’ve been told, that some people believe I’m a good writer, or at least that I could be. But for some reason, I want to hear, from someone who knows what I’m attempting—someone I trust—that they believe and expect I will do it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this desire. Increasingly I’ve seen that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a culture to create a writer, especially a productive one. But I also can’t let go of the image of the solitary writer, sitting in a prison cell if need be, isolated, all the world against her, grinding out a masterpiece with only her own voice for company. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that my “need” for encouragement means I don’t have what it takes to succeed as a writer.

I once had an email exchange with a published writer who had written in her blog that anyone who really want to write can. I took issue with her, talking about the constraints no my time and energy, especially dealing with small children, and she replied that maybe now isn’t the time for me to be writing, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay with me. When I’m not writing, I feel a hole in my life. And that, I tell myself, should be enough, that personal need and urgency should be sufficient to sustain a writing life.

Then I make my way through the day and all the choices I’ve made—choices I would make again without hesitation—but that complicate my life and make a regular writing time, not to mention time for the sleep and the self-care I need to create, difficult. The thing is, I don’t want an “out.” I don’t want a different life. I just want to hear from someone I trust, someone who loves writing and language as I do, and someone who knows me, that they believe in this foolhardy enterprise in which I literally find myself.

To be clear, I’m not expecting or requesting a chorus of generic pep talks, however well-intentioned the people providing them may be. I’m yearning for a community of even as small as one. At a few key moments in my writing life, I’ve had that: a colleague or mentor who knew me and my writing, who actively and regularly inquired about what I was working on, how much I’d gotten done—and for whom I did the same. I’ve even reached out to a few acquaintances during the past couple of years who agreed to that kind of exchange, but in each case, the dialogue has fizzled at their end.

I’m not writing this in the hope that someone who reads it will step forward or that someone will suggest a workshop or studio or class where I can network. I think I’m only writing it because it’s what I’m living at this moment, and I think it’s a real part of the struggle to write well—at least it’s a real part of my struggle. And if nothing else, I hope that others facing the same struggle will see that they have company.

The Practice of Romancing Language: Habits of Courtship

For all our dreamy imaginings, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other about destiny and desire and what is meant to be, both writing and romance are practical arts that find their life in action. And thank goodness for that, because it means that my attitudes and practices have much more to do with the course of my life than would otherwise be the case. But in both of these realms, magical thinking permeates our popular perceptions of what makes them work. Would-be writers try to think or inspire their way to good texts; would-be friends and partners wait for the right person to come along, someone who will understand them intuitively, like what they like, hate what they hate—someone who will somehow “click.”

In some times and some cultures, what we might call romance takes the form of courtship—actions that lay what that culture considers the proper groundwork for an good relationship. Of course, that proper groundwork varies from group to group. It mean demonstrating potential wealth; it could mean having a certain name or reputation. Sometimes it means having the right values or character. Of course, sometimes it’s also meant a way to control and repress whole groups of people, especially women. And for that, among other, reasons, the language of courtship seems to have been set aside in our own time and place.

But whatever we call it, I recognize that both writing and romance are ongoing relationships, not a single, discreet decision. Romance doesn’t end when people commit themselves to one another, and writing doesn’t end when a string of inspired words land on the page or computer screen. I have to feed my writing life with ongoing attitudes of openness and discipline, and those attitudes manifest themselves in deliberately chosen acts—what I like to think of as acts of courtship. My writing process has six of them:

I attend: In a relationship, we try to learn more about the other, and I approach writing in the same way. I attend to language by reading, listening, noting how people use words and how I and others respond to those uses. I also try to notice how I  use words, both when my writing succeeds and when it fails.

I interact: I interact whenever I’m drafting—putting down words that I hope to use in a piece. This may seem an obvious activity for a writer, but I’ve seen students try to think their way through their writing, focusing on ideas but refusing to put down words until the piece is “perfect” in their heads. But doing this only makes my drafting harder and my revision and my revision agonizing. Who wants to change what he’s taken that much time just to get down?

I set intentions: At some point in any relationship, I need to have “the talk.” Who are we to one another? What do we expect? Are we on the same page about what’s going on? Some people, and some writers, like to “go with the flow,” as do I. But I’ve never brought a piece to completion without making some conscious decisions explicitly defining my task. I rarely do it first, but I always do it.

I play: The most underrated act of courtship, especially when it comes to writing, play happens when I interact and experiment with language, not for some larger purpose or set outcome but just to see what emerges and for the pure pleasure of the sight and sound and sensation of it. Sometimes I use these bits of play; sometimes I discard them. But it reminds why I love writing, and that however much I think I know about language, it holds surprises for me.

I reconsider: Whatever intentions I have for a  piece of writing—for the content or diction or syntactic style or structure—I always take time to reconsider them once I’ve drafted. In any relationship, I need to think about how to improve it, about whether we’re going as we hoped we’d go and whether that’s bringing us satisfaction. I might abandon a piece as a result, or set it aside for a while. I might radically change the genre or subject or point of view. I might confirm the choices I made when I set my intentions. But whatever happens, reconsidering keeps me from charging blindly ahead just because I said I would, and it makes responding to obstacles less intimidating.

I shape: When I play in writing, I manipulate words and sentences and ideas and structures just to see what happens, not for any specific purpose or outcome. But when I shape my writing, I manipulate those same elements so that I can achieve the intentions I’ve set for myself. Often in the course of drafting, I drift off on tangents or put concepts or events in a confusing sequence. My sentences often get away from me and from what I want them to do. When I shape my writing, I try to align what I put on the page with my intentions so that I create the experience I aimed for.

So those are the writing habits I try to cultivate and maintain. I want to talk more in later posts about how I do that. What are your writing acts or habits?