I’ve been stealing glances at Dinty W. Moore’s The Mindful Writer when I’m riding on the subway lately, and there’s a bit early on that’s stuck with me. “The writing life is difficult,” Moore writes, “full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.” Which is maybe something some of you have discovered for yourself during this National Novel Writing Month. (If you haven’t, lucky you!)
Moore attributes the problem to “our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written,” and suggests that writers need to take their egos out of the equation and “make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves… [and] be mindful of our motives and our attachments to desired outcomes.”
I realize this is somewhat odd advice to invoke in the middle of a month-long writing exercise that’s entirely grounded in “desired outcome,” namely the idea that you’re supposed to have a completed, novel-length manuscript on November 30. But bear with me for a bit.
Let’s backtrack to that notion of “controlling the process of writing,” which, again, might be a weird thing to preach against during a month when many #NaNoWriMo participants set out to produce a solid 1,667 words a day. And I’ve said a few times already this month that part of the writing life is making the conscious choice to do the writing, to carve out time and space in your life to make sure it happens. Surely that’s “controlling the process of writing,” isn’t it?
I don’t think Moore’s really talking about the “process” so much as the “product,” perhaps—or, to put it another way, he’s referring to the frustration we feel when the writing doesn’t come out exactly the way we want it to be on the first pass. Maybe we’re having trouble finding the sentences that exactly mirror the thoughts in our heads. Maybe we can’t figure out how to get the characters where we need them to be so they can do the things that we’ve decided they need to do to make the story work. Maybe, even though we’ve set aside the time, we’re still not coming up with the pages.
When that happens, all you can do is keep at it. Tinker with the sentences until they’re as clear as they can be. Have your characters do something, anything, and see where it takes them; if it doesn’t steer them towards your desired plot point, maybe it leads you to an even better one, and at the very least it might teach you something about them. Put the first thing that comes to mind onto the page, knowing that you can always fix it or trash it and scavenge from it later.
Then, to echo something I said last week, stop thinking about what’s going to happen to “this book” after it’s done. I’ve warned you about getting caught up in fantasies of finding an agent or landing a book deal or going out on a publicity tour. Now I’m saying don’t even spend any time right now thinking about what people are going to think about your book when they read it. Will they understand, will they not understand? Will they empathize with your characters, will they hate you for writing about the things you’ve chosen to write about? You can’t control any of that, so don’t worry about it. If this is the book you’re compelled to write, write it now. Later, when it’s done, if you don’t feel like you’re ready to share it with the world, set it aside. But get it done first.
When it comes to the “motives” for writing, I frequently tell people that if you want money or fame, there are so many other, easier ways to acquire them than becoming a writer. The ideal motive for pursuing the writing life, as I see it, isn’t material success; it’s the goal, as Thomas Merton said in a more explicitly spiritual context, of “learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.”
That kind of enlightenment never comes easily. So you have to learn to trust in the process, which entails both committing to the process and letting it guide you rather than trying to force any particular results. If you’re already certain about how it’s going to turn out, after all, are you really learning anything about yourself?
The next time you’re feeling stuck during your daily writing session, think about that. And then turn back to your notebook or your computer and keep trying.