Certain I’m Uncertain: I don’t know squat. Not about writing. There, I said it. Glad that’s out in the open.
I came upon this realization while pondering what I could share here, as a guest on Writers In The Storm (thanks for having me, ladies!). Yep, while seeking some sort of solid ground, some credible and measureable wisdom I could impart in this venerable space, I was suddenly sure of it: I got nuthin’.
I’d gladly lay odds that each of you reading knows as much or more than I do about grammar, POV, or three-act structure. So if you clicked over to this wonderful blog thinking you could gain some tangible bit of certainty about the craft of writing fiction—some of the usual insight and wisdom found in this spot—I’m sorry to tell you that after ten years of writing, the only thing I’m sure of is that there’s nothing about it I am sure of. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you clicked away. Thanks for reading this far! Good luck! (I suppose I am “certain” you’ll need some of that.) Farewell!
Allow Me to Quantify… Er, Qualify: Still here? Good. Now, for those of you who don’t know me, allow me to tell you a bit about myself. I came to writing fairly late in life, after a twenty year stint in the lumber business. For the purposes of this post, there’s only one thing I need to convey about the lumber business (and it should be fairly self-evident): It’s measureable.
In other words, everything about my previous occupation could be almost instantly gauged for effectiveness. How well we were doing day by day, even hour by hour, could be—and was—measured. I could instantly assess my progress at almost any given time, for any aspect of my professional life, by simply plugging in the numbers. Of course there were qualifications, and non-numerical decisions to be made (e.g. should we add this line of products; promote this employee, invest in this equipment?). But after making them, there was always a measurement for gauging their success.
Originally I thought to bring this quantifying mentality to writing. I would monitor word counts, how long each manuscript took, how many pages I could edit per day, etcetera. Until I found out that quantification is damn near meaningless to defining my writing success.
The Kindergarten Novelist: I recently finished a draft of a manuscript. Despite this section’s subtitle, I am not new to this (the subtitle is more about a state of mind). This is actually my fourth completed manuscript. Or fifth, depending on how it’s counted. It feels like it’s new. It’s freshly composed, but the story is the first third of a lengthy manuscript I finished in 2012, and I’ve decided to split it into a trilogy.
It also seems new because of what feels like new progress in my craft. At least it feels that way on “the good days.” Due to the generosity of a few wise mentors, and some fabulous insights gained at a wonderful craft-oriented conference last autumn, I feel I’ve made strides in my writing capabilities. For this manuscript, I seem to have internalized a few lessons. On the good days, the progress is apparent to me in the work. Mercurial as it may be, even my capacity for self-analysis feels like a breakthrough.
But there are still bad days, too. There are still days when I feel like that kindergarten writer. How can I be sure I’ve grown? Who will give me a gold star? I can’t check my board-footage shipping tallies. At this stage of my writing life, there are no sales charts. Sure, perhaps one of my beta-readers will tell me they think this manuscript shows improvement, or perhaps that they found the pages turning faster. But it’s unlikely. Most of my current crop of readers either don’t know the story, or have never read my work before. They have no yardstick to wield. Those who have read my stuff are likely to simply tell me what’s working and what isn’t—rightfully so. One person’s praiseworthy element will likely be another’s irritant. Even if I submit it and it lands me an agent or a deal, there will be no way to ascertain precisely what is working better or worse than before, or exactly how I’ve grown.
I will not receive a gold star for the growth my gut tells me I’ve undergone. Even a kindergartener has a better idea of their artistic progress. Damn. I need a nap. And a cookie.
Internalizing a Lack of Externals:
“Do your work, then step back. It is the only path to serenity.” ~Lao Tzu
In spite of this lack of measurability—in spite of the imprecise nature of quality and the nebulousness of writerly success—something feels different this time around. It’s funny, but one of the ways I feel I’ve grown has to do with getting in touch with the internal goals, motivations, and conflicts of my characters. Which makes the thought of seeking external validation for those same progressions seem a bit absurd.
One of my few goals for the new year was to strive to overcome self-doubt. Or at least to have more good days than bad ones. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t feel pretty good about this piece after I finished it. And on more days than I felt the opposite. I sent it to a group of writers and mentors whose work and opinions I greatly respect. And yet, that moment of hitting the send button was among the most angst-free I’ve experienced. I think it’s because I’d made my peace with this project. I’m less fixated on its publishing marketability, and more on its worthiness in relation to my journey. I’ve decided it’s been worthy of my time and effort. I like the characters and the story. They feel fresh and yet intimately familiar. It’s a satisfying feeling.
Don’t get me wrong—I know there is work yet to be done on this one. Indeed, I’ve already received the first few critiques, and they are concurrent and emphatic on the point. But the negative aspects of critique matter less to me this time around. I used to think of them as setbacks, like a stalled forklift is to lumber production. And that mentality led to bad days. I now better see their intent as direction toward more growth. I now better understand that ongoing growth, steady and enduring, is the pathway to success. Hence, more good days.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… Live within the question.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit.” ~Napoleon Hill
Returning to my original point, it seems the more I learn, the more I fully comprehend how little I know about writing. Not in the form of tangible craft advice, not for a group of pros and enthusiastic aspiring pros like you, my fellow WITS readers. Yet I have found something of value. And I hope I’m effectively conveying it. What I’ve recently discovered is a measure of peace amidst the storm of uncertainty that is a career in fiction writing. And I’ve realized that this little bit of peace, this semi-serene feeling regarding my work, is the reward. It came at the price of persevering effort—a refusal to quit. And it came of patience with the things that are unsolved in my heart. I have accepted that I must live within the question.
So I may not know squat, but when I search my heart I see that I’ve grown as a writer. Most days lately, I’m able to say I’m sure of it. And I know you’re growing, too. I hope you’re able to recognize it—at least on the good days.
All in all, I’d say that as a writer, I’m mostly at peace, or semi-serene. And that, my friends, is progress. Particularly for a former quantification junkie. I might even give myself a gold star. Nah, I’ll just have a nap. And a cookie. Then I’ll get back to work on book two, secure in the knowledge that there are many good days to come.
Your turn! Do you know squat about writing? (Never mind, I’m sure you do.) Have you found your way to serenity in the storm of uncertainty? Semi-serenity? Would you like a gold star? Or will you settle for a cookie, and then get back to work?
In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.