Monday, August 29, 2011

Fear and Loathing and the Voices in Your Head

Today is the first day of school in these parts.  Thanks to Irene, my husband has a day-long reprieve.  But my kids have to go.  "No fair!" said my rising first grader, who has grown increasingly nervous with the approach of dawn.  She is a gregarious kid given to making new 'BFFs' in five minutes, and she is utterly petrified that she will not make new friends in her new school.

Self-doubt has a healthy function, no question.  As writers, we need to be well attuned to our inner critics.  Writing is revising, after all.  But how to sift out the invaluable inner critic from the confidence-wrecking, totally counterproductive one?  That is the trick.

My college students are typically very reluctant revisers.  We talk extensively about how to determine whether feedback is valid and which feedback to accept; after all this, I still have to practically arm wrestle them to the ground to get them to make any significant revisions at all. 

Novice and aspiring fiction writers often have this issue.  For those a little further along in the process, the opposite may be true.  We revise and hone and cut and toss, and we have a hard time declaring the work 'finished.'  I have another problem, too.  I will start thinking, 'Maybe this is a bad premise.  Maybe this is too similar to [x] or maybe I'm trying to do too much here.'  And, lacking outside feedback, I persuade myself to give up on the whole enterprise.  After all, pushing oneself to finish multiple complete projects that may (likely) never see the light of day is a very self-punishing enterprise! 

I remember reading that Joyce Carol Oates wrote multiple drafts and shoved them cheerfully into a drawer until she finally determined that she was ready and practiced enough to be a real writer.  Good for her, but most of us are not so clear-eyed about our own work. 

Once upon a time, I thought that when I got published, I would be officially an 'author.'  I thought that this accomplishment would keep future manuscripts out of the slush pile, that it would make getting published again easier, and that it would surely motivate me to keep going.  None of these assumptions has proven true. 

I have also discovered a new writing fear -- now that I have published ONE book of my own (which was, once upon a time, my prevailing goal), maybe I've lost the desire to keep doing this.  Maybe I've run out of (or will soon run out of) things I want to say! 

When I have time to focus hard on reading and writing my own material, I know in my heart that I will never lose that hunger.  But life does get in the way.  And slogging through alone is no way to do it.  So:
Find a mentor, find a critique group, find an agent, find someone to help you through! 

This is not as easy as it sounds.  A place to feel comfortable, members who 'get' your work -- who will give you constructive feedback, but not too much and not too little -- this is almost as huge an undertaking as writing the darned project.  Finding groups through SCBWI or a class is often the best way to get started.  My summer class at McDaniel was filled with like-minded writers, but we have slacked off this summer as the class has ended. 

I asked our teacher, the wonderful Jill Santopolo, how often her house publishes manuscripts out of the slush pile.  She was very honest and said maybe one to two manuscripts per year.  YIKES!  While one hates to think that getting published is sort of about who you know... it's sort of about who you know.  Once you've cultivated a relationship with a particular editor, then you have an 'in.'  Once you have an agent -- then you have a big 'in.'  Going to conferences, meeting people, taking classes -- it's important to the work, and it's important to getting the work read where it needs to be.

What I discovered this summer in my class is that I need feedback at the very beginning.  I need input about my premise and the bones of my plot.  I work better if I write an outline.  Once I know where I'm going, I'm off.  I think that outlining might be my personal trick, because my inner critic gets a lot quieter once I have a firm plan in place.  Check in with me in a year, and I'll let you know whether I finally have a draft. :)    --Jeanne Marie

1 comment:

April Halprin Wayland said...

You say that your college students are typically very reluctant revisers. I love this term.

I just read that one of the no-nos of writing is abandoning work.

Uh-oh. If that's the case, I'm going to jail...