Doubt and the Working Writer

This week, as I typed madly at my keyboard adding word after word to this ungainly beast I like to think of as a proto-novel, I did something to one of my texts few have ever witnessed: I surpassed the  20,000 word mark.  Now, this may not seem like much of a triumph, and indeed, for many, this is a chump’s word count.  But I have traditionally dealt in short stories.  Flittered around poems.  Written a fair number of of novelette-length academic papers… and the gorilla of girth in my typing career was my thesis, weighing in at about 30,000 words.  I am prolific, but concise.

I am also a champion worrier.  If worrying were an Olympic sport, I’d be a seven-time gold medalist in the event.  I contend that Shel Silverstein wrote the poem “Whatif” in anticipation of me.  I am so good at worrying, I worry that, in worrying about worrying, someone will surpass my my ability to worry.  This is probably part of why I write.

So, in setting those first 20,000 words down, what could possibly have happened but my old worry machine booted up, scanned the page, and promptly went into spasms.  “Oh gods, Story, how could you write this?!  It’s trash, it’s stringy, and it doesn’t even make sense.  This part no longer makes sense with that other part, and over here your dialog is wooden.  When you write for a while, your descriptions go all flat.  You are going to embarrass yourself.  This is terrible.  You should stick to short stories.  You’re good at those.  This is terrible.”

Except, I knew this would come.  I knew I would have these moments.  This was not the last of them.  I turned off my computer after making damned sure that I saved, and attempted to set it aside for the rest of the evening until I got home.  Then I crept into the back room, uncovered my ancient binder and dove in.  As soon as I opened it, its entire contents flooded out, covering the floor: old pencil drawings, high school poetry, a brief stint with oil pastels, a few hand written first drafts scribbled in graphite.  As I picked them up, I read them.

If you want to exercise your patience, I highly recommend pulling out all your oldest writings.  The stuff from middle school, the stuff from eleventh grade pre-calc, maybe the stuff you wrote during gym class because you were one of the kids who never dressed out.  If you don’t think it’s the most wretched stuff you’ve ever set to page, I guarantee you’re a worse writer than me, and your tastes have not improved.  Either that, or you’re a prodigy, and writers have been sending assassins after you for years.  Or maybe you’re still in high school, in which case I can forgive you.  I held in my hand writing far worse than the stuff I’d just vomited into my word processor.  Writing which I’d gone over and revised at least ten times, if not more.  Writing which, in its final form, I had gotten published.  Then I cried, as any self-respecting champion worrier would.  And, like any proper New England born child, if you ask me again, I’ll deny it.

I suppose this is all to say that from the middle of the process, any endeavor looks like a train wreck.  To some degree, it probably is.  Most people who work through a process like this can tell you from experience what the whole of it tends to look like, but when you’re new to it, you don’t have that luxury.  I have to tell myself as I continue to work— the worst that can happen is I get through the fourth draft, hate it, and chop it into a series of finely crafted short stories.  Then I have short stories.  And I know I’m good at those.

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