Touching something real
Recently, I was working on a deeply personal and difficult to write nonfiction piece. Before starting, I had a fair amount of anxiety about the topic. I said to myself that I would try, and that I would be gentle with myself. I was prepared to stop at any time if it felt like too much.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered I was ready after all. Before long, I was delving into parts of myself I had not explored before. The healing this brought felt good. I was alive with the conviction that I’d been truthful.
This happens to me with both fiction and nonfiction, that glorious moment when the work touches something deep and true. There’s no denying the feeling is exhilarating and the sense of accomplishment is worth savoring. But sadly, that does not mean the piece is done.
The start, not the end
I’m slow to learn this. As I look back, I see I’ve been through the process several times in my creative work. My hope is that the next time it happens I will recognize that feeling of touching something true for what it is—the start of a journey, not the end.
After I’d written something truthful about the difficult personal experience, I immediately sent the nonfiction piece to my mentor, Stella Harvey. My gut instinct said I’d done something brave and powerful. Why wait to share it?
I pressed Send and the email was gone. That is when the torture began. Rewrites flooded my brain: clear-eyed edits, not only of words, but of ideas and story. Around the clock, day and night, I could not stop the revisions running through my brain. Although I realized it was unproductive to rewrite before I’d gotten feedback from my mentor, I did that anyway. A few days later, I admitted my mistake to my mentor. I confessed that I’d been premature. I apologized and took the piece back so that I could begin the real work.
The illusive switch
I’ve since begun to see a pattern that goes beyond my creative work, or maybe what I’m starting to see is a switch that I can use to change from creative mode to investigative mode. Like many editors, I am obsessive. I will dash off a quick email to a friend, click Send, and later re-open the email to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. Too often, I have missed an article. The lack of a simple “the” or “an” gives me real regret. Other times, I’ll have made a typo—those make me cringe.
I’m writing now about word use, but the principle applies also to character development and story. I need to slow down and look at my work with concentration and the threat of doing something I will regret. Only then, will it be my best.
Feelings distort too
This is not only about mind state. It is also about our more illusive state, the one related to our feelings. As writers, we may struggle to tell the difference between what we feel and what is actually on paper. We tend to confuse what we intended with what the readers are likely to find on the page. Although it helps enormously to get friends and other writers to read our work, and say what they get out of that experience, I think the task requires more.
To get to the best writing, we need distance from the experience we had when composing the words. We need to see through the lens of a reader, instead of the lens of our self. The simplest way to do that is to set the work aside long enough that we forget it. Alice Munro was known to write her short stories to the best of her ability, set them aside for a year, and then go back to take them to completion.
Another option? Click Send.