I’ve been on the lookout recently for useful ways to talk about the process of a regular writing practice, and the outcomes that can come out of that process, and earlier this week I started reading The Inner Game of Work, a book that came out in 2000 from W. Timothy Gallwey, who first rose to fame in the 1970s as the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, which pretty much launched “sports psychology” as a viable book genre.
I’m still in the opening chapters, but one of the first major insights Gallwey wants to share is that we’re capable of doing great work right from the beginning—except that we insist on telling ourselves that we’re doing it all wrong. It’s even simpler than that, really. In fact, the formula can be boiled down to just three words:
PERFORMANCE = potential - interference
If you’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month this last week, you’ve probably got a visceral understanding of how that formula plays out in real life by now. You’ve got this great story in your head, and you want to tell that story, but you have to make the time to write it, and even once you’ve made the time, you may find yourself too rattled by doubts and fears to actually get the story on the page in a way that feels right. But when you can push away everything and concentrate on that story, well, that’s a good writing day, and I bet you wish you could have more of those.
I know I do.
One aspect of this I feel like I should make a point of talking about is the question of why you’re writing, whether it’s “why I’m trying to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days” or “why I’m trying to write a story at all.” I worry, just a little bit, about whether there are enough “success stories” about writers who were able to get a book deal from a NaNoWriMo manuscript that maybe it gets into other writers’ heads that they could do that, and so they set out to write a “marketable” novel.
When you do that, it’s easier than usual to start second-guessing yourself, to write yourself into corners because you can’t figure out what the most commercially viable next move would be, to tell yourself that story will never sell and you’re not good enough to write a story that will sell. So you get frustrated with yourself, and maybe you quit around the middle of the month, or maybe you white-knuckle it out until the 30th, and then decide you’re never going to put yourself through that again.
A few pages after the PERFORMANCE formula, there’s another Gallwey quote that leapt out at me because of its perfect aptness to the dilemma every writer faces:
“I can choose to be in touch with my own inherent priorities… or I can be distracted from them by the internalized agendas others have for me.”
Which means, for the purposes of this discussion: Don’t write to “the market.” Write for yourself. (It also means don’t let the world tell you you can’t write, but we’ll talk about that later.)
Even if you don’t consciously know what matters most to you, and why a particular story is the story you want to tell, there’s a deeper level at which you already know these things intuitively, and that part of you is simply waiting for your conscious, creative mind to catch up so you can start expressing yourself.
I’m tempted to say “There’s no right way or wrong way to tell a story; there’s just your way.” But that feels a little too stark—and, when you get right down to it, one of my key roles as a developmental editor is helping writers understand all the wrong ways there are to tell a story. Those are largely technical issues, though, pertaining to how effectively someone is telling the story they want to tell, and whether its components are working together consistently.
What I don’t do is tell a writer the story they want to tell is the wrong story to tell. I may tell them, if they ask, what obstacles the story they want to tell is likely to face if it’s presented to agents and editors, and what creative decisions could make those obstacles less imposing. I’m careful, though, to distinguish between publishing considerations and writing considerations—and to cheerlead for the latter.
If you’re working on something right now, for NaNoWriMo or not, I hope it’s something that truly compels you, something that’s fully and genuinely aligned with your priorities as a writer and as a person making your way through the world. Keep writing toward that, and each day you’ll come to understand your story a little better.