Dear Writing Teacher,
I’m guarding my heart. I saw a colleague a couple nights ago and we talked about standing on the ledge of a writing project but not wanting to get too involved because what if this is not the one? What if it’s not a book? So I need to get honest. I’m stuck at a three pronged fork in the road — a spork. I’m stuck at a spork in the road. I have three possible projects, all different, but all gleaned from some of the same material, so I’d have to make a Sophie’s choice and I’m spooked. I wish someone could tell me what to do, but in the end I know no one can tell me. Sometimes it seems really trivial, like getting stuck on what to wear and I just need to forget about it and just get dressed and get the fuck out of the house already. Or is it more deliberate than that? I don’t know… any tips?
My immediate response to this letter is to cry, “A spork in the road? I love it!” Should one of your projects be a memoir, I suggest you call it that. I’ll be first in line to get a signed copy.
In all seriousness, though, I identify with the fear you’re experiencing. (See: this.) A project that you haven’t yet begun can still glitter in the mind, but as soon as you set it down to paper, the thing is tarnished by the limits of your skill and talent. And what if you start something, only to realize it isn’t anything at all? As I typed that question, a metaphorical ice-cube slid down my spine.
The thing is this: yes, you just need to get dressed and get the fuck out of the house. The house is safe, but it will suffocate you. You can’t pace those rooms forever. (Side story: In elementary school, my sister could never figure out what to wear. It was a problem. More than once, my mom had to drag her into the car. My sister would be weeping, in her pajamas, and she’d end up at school in whatever clothes my mom had tossed at her. There’s a lesson in here, young grasshopper. Namely, my sister was struggling with emotional issues that were getting misdiagnosed as fashion quandaries.) I suggest this, Stuck: welcome with open arms the failures that inevitably come with any writing project, and be comforted by the fact that you can rewrite later. Also: it’s when you need to write yourself out of a pile of shit that the interesting stuff happens.
I am intrigued, and a little troubled, by the wording of your question. Your opening phrase, “I am guarding my heart,” is followed by, “What if this is not the one?” Honey, you aren’t a contestant on The Bachelor, you’re a writer! Even if the project you do commit to (out of the three possible ones) ends up being the best one to pursue, it doesn’t mean you can’t later take one of the others to the fantasy-suite-that-is-your-desk. Unless you fancy yourself the next Harper Lee (okay, who doesn’t?), your career will be made up of many books. So what if they’re all gleaned from the same material? Look at Alice Munro — she writes about mothers and daughters, train rides, and tall women over and over (and over) again, and still we salivate at the thought of reading her latest story in The New Yorker. In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” If what astonishes you, if what has traumatized you and exhausted you and inspired you and remade you, remains the same for your whole life, so be it. Your audience will follow your always-evolving relationship to this material. It will be your material.
And stop guarding that heart! (This is true for both writers and contestants on The Bachelor — it’s the only way to win. That, and being a sweet Southern girl with a killer bod.) Amy Hempel has quoted her teacher Gordon Lish as saying, “Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” Amen, amen, amen.
Now that my pep talk is over, here are some (sort of) practical tips to help you on this sporked journey:
1. You might try working on the three projects simultaneously. Mondays, try Project 1, Tuesdays, Project 2, and Wednesdays, Project 3. On the fourth day, pick the project that sings the prettiest, and work on that. You might take a decade and end up with three books. Or you might pretty quickly see that one project is the least tarnished and abandon the other two (for the time being). Choice made. If the day-to-day schedule doesn’t suit you, try week-to-week, or one project per month.
2. Take a moment and consider your worst writing nightmare. Is it that you waste a year on one project, only to realize it was the wrong one? Is it that all three ideas end up sucking? I say, revel in that sick fantasy for 20 minutes. Really: set a timer and close your eyes. Cry if you must, scream, go kick the garbage cans outside. Get it all out. Okay, done? Now that you’ve indulged yourself, get to work.
3. Even if you make a “bad” choice in writing, or make a wrong turn, remember that many amazing books came to authors as they were struggling through other books. Marilynne Robinson has said that’s how Gilead came about. Jeffrey Eugenides writes about this very process in his essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write The Marriage Plot.” And I just read this article about Maria Semple and her second novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette: “And after spending two years attempting to write what Semple described as a “commercial” novel about two sisters in Colorado, she abandoned the project completely.” I am sure the day Semple decided she couldn’t continue that book was a dark one. But, you know what? Out of that came this terrific novel that tons of readers love. You must proceed from the notion that your ideas aren’t finite, that there’s always another glittering book around the bend. Let me repeat: Your ideas aren’t finite.
4. Just start, and let the work be your guide. The project that deserves your immediate attention will let itself be known, it will pull you in like an ocean current. And if it doesn’t, well, keep swimming until you find it.
(You’re swimming now, see? Forget the walking/road image!)
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].