Part 2 on Writing Novels and Feeling Inept and Unworthy and Despite All That Continuing to Write: Jo-Ann Mapson
When I signed off last time, I was at the crucial juncture of looking at my writing as being one of two things: OK or not OK. I’m sure this sounds limiting, but after decades of writing I’ve learned this is only sphere in which to operate. Anything else will mess you up. Just the other day I took my Tony Lamas to a shoe repair place that made me stop in my tracks. Why? It was another world. One guy at the counter was about 500 years old and wearing an oxygen thingy that went into his nose. I was surrounded by hundreds of pairs of shoes. It was dark in there; there were so many shoes. The counter guy who waited on me was like a dad. Middle aged, Latino, and smartly dressed. I was embarrassed to show him that my boots had holes in the soles.
“These are very nice boots,” he said.
Of course then they seemed to me to be doggone incredibly nice boots that just had unfortunately developed a few holes that once fixed would be even cooler boots. Immediately I started to think about what great taste I had in boots, and began planning to take them out on the town as soon as they were fixed. The boot buyer in me was overwhelmed with her ability to find perfect boots, possibly even classic boots, when what I should have been paying attention to was how much it was going to cost to fix them. I never did ask. Now whatever the boots cost, I have to grin and bear it and write a check.
And you know what? The little universe I’d just entered would make a great story. I should have been taking notes. Listening to conversations filled with talk of shoes, and the biker guy in front of me in line, whatever he was saying. But no, I was overcome with, “My gosh I have great taste in boots, don’t I? Let’s see. What else about me is great? Maybe I should stop off at Party Town and pick up some crepe paper and horns and spend all day having a party for myself.”
No, I needed to go home and write, so I did.
The way to write a novel is to show up every day in front of your computer and sit there. Put your hands on the keyboard and see what happens. If nothing does, read over whatever you wrote the day before and tinker a little with it. Writers need to warm up just like athletes. If you can’t think of one thing to write, try one of these starters:
Mary (insert your narrator’s name here) regretted…..
Five things Clarence remembered:
Words will arrive. They might be not so great words, but if you read my initial blog entry, you will know that you have
Something to work with
What writing is like
And that is all you need. Now some days this will feel like extruding chicken, other days you’ll sit there and look at the blinking cursor with a savage kind of anger at whomever invented this fresh hell that is a word processing program and computer. Think then, of manual typewriters without automatic correction. Or pens that had to be dipped in ink to write a single letter. I promise there will also be days that are filled with that writer’s high when ideas flow right out of your fingertips as if they are pure energy. Or you will look up from your screen and realize three hours have passed. That is the best it gets, folks. The writing process is that simple and that exacting.
Writing can be lonely. It kind of has to be. For the novel length story to release itself you pretty much have pay complete attention. It isn’t that you want to be antisocial, but that you are practicing your craft. My younger brother is a musician. When he plays gigs, inevitably someone comes up to him during the band’s break and says, “I would give my soul to play like that.” He always smiles and says, “Good, because that’s what you have to do.” The same is true of writing. You have to give yourself to the process, spend less time with social events, and you have to do this by yourself.
By James Jowers, George Eastman House
Which isn’t a smooth entrance into talking about the writer stuff no one wants to address: namely, depression, discouragement, alcohol/drug problems, etc. By now I’ve probably alienated some of you, but you know what? I’ve taught creative writing for 20+ years and seen the gamut of problems. Even experienced a few myself. It’s taxing on the psyche to look deeply into things and it has an effect if you do it every day. Read William Styron’s book, Darkness Visible. Yes, some days you are white hot and racking up the pages, but imagine this: Styron had a 27-year-long period where he couldn’t finish a novel. Before you succumb to playing solitaire on the computer or reading Twitter messages, think of William Styron and get yourself back into the chair.
Good Reasons for Depression:
Ta ta for now,
Novels are long. Filling 400 blank pages is intimidating. I have written 11 and am working on my 12th. In the beginning stages of writing a novel, every creative known writing term known to civilization comes to haunt me. You call that a narrative hook? Have you ever heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell?” Remember, never describe what a character looks like by having her look in a mirror. Um, isn’t that a clichée? Do you even recognize the term “objective correlative?” Of course. Then why can’t you use it properly? Sheesh, they should take your MFA away from you and give it to someone who could use it.
I could go on, but I don’t want to spread my paranoia cooties.
“Try not to let the critics into your head,” my literary agent told me when I was starting my second novel, sold on a verbal proposal. I’d had many good reviews and some really unpleasant ones. So of course the critic moved right in, painted the walls a painful mustard yellow, added fraying furniture with bad springs, hung Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” on the wall. Then it set out room temperature macaroni salad and some questionable fish, scattered tacks on the floor, and put on the soundtrack to “Jaws.”
Newsflash: This happens every time I write a novel.
I might appear normal on the outside, grocery shopping, brushing my hair, engaging in ordinary conversations with people other than my dogs, but inside, I’m nearly paralyzed with doubt. I start writing anyway, hoping to reach the magical page 200, proof to me that these inflated meanderings may yet become a story. When, after many months of writing, hurrah, I arrive at page 200, I am thrilled. By this time I’ve rewritten every word, started over in six different places, and banished characters that were intent on hijacking the story for their own illicit purposes.*
*Warning: The second a writer makes blanket statements like this, the characters gang up to prove her wrong and turn out to be excellent guides. I don’t want to think about how much control I assume I have, I just want to write.
The reason page 200 arrives is because I have stubbornly pursued it. I have written passages and even chapters that I know will be axed, but the number 200 quiets the critic for a while. I can breathe. Then I forge ahead with more conviction, because now there’s something to work with.
Something to work with.
This is what it takes to finish a novel. Even the most horrible first 200 pages prove that I can write probably another 200 without imploding. 200 + 200 = the most beautiful phrase: a first, full draft. Yes, there will be massive rewriting, doubt dressed in go-go boots, and even potentially rejection, but right now I can write the pants off of a novel.
At this point there are only 2 ways to look at your writing: It is OK, or it is Not OK. Anything else (this is brilliant, call the MacArthur Grant people, this is dreck, this is amazing, this is pointless) is going to stall me out.
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