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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.

And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.

There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.

Crap.

Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?

If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.

We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.

Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.

For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.

So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.

Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.

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Agent queries are the writer’s time to be gutsy, fearless and resilient. Or to pretend to be.

Pretend is the operative word, here. Fearless ain’t the natural order of things. Inside every writer is a failure waiting to be exposed. Terror scratches at the back of our heads like the lioness in that much-seen YouTube video—the one that tried to eat a toddler’s head through a glass wall. Fear is the lion. It’s hungry. It’s relentless. The claws and fangs of rejection are always back there. The question is, what can we do about it?

Good news: As a writer, I’m not alone in fearing rejection. Bad news: Every writer is alone in that fear. Given the content on the websites I’ve been reading, writers are a single organism of quivering neurosis.

Makes sense that we would be. We spend months and months in the company of characters who are more real than the breathing phantoms around us. We flee from the world in favor of a more fulfilling (and, let’s face it, often way more interesting) space in our minds. We write and rewrite. We polish and we suffer. We embrace and cast away. We are nudged by the lover-page in the dark hours; we are exiled to the islands of ourselves. And now, we must put a busy cadre of agent-others in the position to send us packing. Nice.

The most honest, self-aware thing we can say is that the prospect scares us shitless.

One of the poisonous pools of doubt comes from having be picked up by the first agent who saw my first book…and published by the first publisher who read it. Being declined (and, full disclosure, I haven’t yet toted up enough rejections to count on one hand) proves the worst things we believe about ourselves. Forget the soaring passages that sing to us, even now. Forget the voice that is so strong that, barring terrifying self delusion, it is driven by a real sense of wonder. Forget the honest accolades that have come from beta readers who’ve seen the work. One word of anything less than praise speaks to the hack, the fantasizer, the trembling Ordinary in us all.

Don’t the words shine so brightly off the page that the agent must see the glow through the avalanche of query emails? Shouldn’t the power and potential be instantly apparent?

Realistically, no.

As we wait, we’re caught between the equal urges toward hand-wringing and neck-wringing. We are possessed with reading about triumphs despite adversity: “[author’s name] was turned down by [appallingly large number of] agents, and the work is still in print”; by self-induced platitudes such as “all books aren’t for all agents; all it takes it one.” Thanks. I’ll remind myself of all that when people tell me how ugly my baby is.

Time to make failure my ally; to make fear my best friend. The agent is out there. The publisher is. The audience is. It’s my job now to find them. The work that should have been finished isn’t done at all. And the only sure way to guarantee not being published again is to do nothing.

 

Are we more confident by day than by night? Or are we just stupider?

By day, we writers are creature of light, drawing energy from an optimistic inner sun. We are fearless and confident. Problems in the work are merely possibilities as yet undiscovered. Give it time, we tell ourselves; it will all come right.

By night—especially at the end of long days at the page—we are weak-willed drivellers. The moments that delighted us, the romance in the words, are caught in a vortex of crippling despair. We are doubtful about the whole product. We are afraid. We are terrified breathless.

Day is strength. Night is doubt. The story we loved at noon is hopelessly idiotic at nine. The characters are vapid; the plot, vaporous. What the hell were we thinking? And why the hell have we been thinking it for three years?

There is no way around the pink elephant in the room. We tell ourselves and others that this book is just a very different creature, not readily recognizable as a comfortably familiar genre. At night, all we can see is that the elephant is just improbably, halluncinogenically pink, nothing more.

At night, our daylit confidence dissolves. Our optimistic regard of our talents melts like frost under a heat lamp.

Day tells us that hard work will, eventually, get us where we want to be.

Night tells us that we are talentless shlubs that no effort can possibly redeem.

Now the too-polite smiles will come. The friends who have professed eagerness to read the work will not finish it. Or they won’t comment on it. Or it will just disappear from the list of things you talk about together. They won’t tell you why, for fear of the hurt that you and they both know will result.

Now the doubts will come. The certainty that we will forever be relegated to the limbo of the mediocre-almost; of the hobby writer; of the dabbler. The worst place in the world for a dedicated wordsmith to be.

Which is why I’m going to bed. To not-think. To let my tired brain wait for the day to recharge it. To delude myself afresh—or to find my hope again. Both. Or neither. Over and over and over again.

The greatest joy for the writer comes with the passage that writes itself; the shimmering fabric that presents itself whole in our heads and asks us to do nothing more than lay it to the page.

Other times, we’re bricklayers.

Sometimes, the big picture refuses to coalesce. The unvoiced question refuses to be answered. We send ourselves dutifully to the chapter and labor at it, building it one brick at a time. It ain’t easy. And a brick wall is, by its nature, no shimmering fabric.

But there’s a grace in bricklaying. There are several.

A brick wall can be disassembled—a lot more easily than a shimmering fabric can be unwoven. We lay one element and make it level. We lay another and test whether they lay true. We can tease the bricks apart. Or pull them down altogether. The wall holds its place nicely for a while…until a better structure presents itself. If we’re lucky, we wind up with a passable, workmanlike thing. That’s tough when we ask, demand, something more of ourselves. And yet, what we have built stands for something—effort if not inspiration.

This has been a hollow weekend, in some ways. A bricklaying session supreme. I started with a wonderful image, set to music real and imagined, only to discover that there was a hole that I hadn’t anticipated; one that I didn’t know how to fill…a character who has moved the story from the beginning, whom I had allowed to disappear. I’ve been laying-in the bricks of this created encounter, waiting for the ahahhhh, for the mental mortar; knowing that there is a beautiful moment hiding in the pile, but not quite finding it yet.

Which brings us to the other grace, the one that comes with the effort itself. A day spent writing—even poorly—or painting, or doing vocal exercises or stretching the body to dance is a day spent well. The practice may not make us amazing limber or reveal an unexpected genius, but at least it is the opposite of atrophy. The wheel, well oiled, may not carry us over our personal mountain passes or win our internalized Indy 500, but we can be pretty sure that it won’t seize up at the least opportune moment. Lay brick, and our brain-muscles will be more toned and ready for fresh demands than if we’d sat on the sidelines of ourselves.

Bricklaying as an exercise in self-forgiveness. Who’da thunk it?

Hi all… A short post as I recover from the slammin’ cold that chased me back from my visit.

It was wonderful. Every second of it. Food–much. Pubs. Laughter. Welcome. Walks. Amazing conversations. And did I say food? Janet and Clive are the two greatest hosts in the history of my life; they create heritage-rich Christmases right of Charles Dickens (there–I thought I’d get to writers and writing sooner or later.)

photo-100

Tea at an old estate one day (anda bad photo to show for it)…

DSCN0661A day at the races at Towcester (r to l: Belinda, my racing advisor ex-jockey Tyler ), and Belinda’s husband Tony (feeling the cold)…

Jason, the day’s winner…DSCN0662

And one of my winners….  DSCN0663

Many pub visits (sans photos)….

And, of course, Xmas… (Belinda and the table…)

DSCN0649DSCN0645More soon. Tomorrow, back to writing about writing–and the idea that not even cleverness will disguise the laziness of cliches.

 

Happy New Year, you!

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