by Tasha Seegmiller
The other day, I had a writerly existential crisis.
One of the greatest benefits of being an MFA candidate is the opportunity I have to work closely with incredible professionals who help me hone my craft. While there are agents who advise on stories a bit, and editors who help writers make their stories better, possibly even critique partners and beta readers, the chance to have someone who is literally paid to help me make my writing better is not something that is likely to appear again.
The reality of spending time, I mean really spending time looking at writing, thinking about writing, analyzing books, sitting in a room where other people are talking about craft and life and inspiration and story is that the writer realizes they have A LOT of work to do.
So much work to do.
I only get to work with each advisor once, for a single short semester. For those short months, I get to rely on them and their insight and their suggestions for my writing.
And so, in true neurotic fashion, I had a bit of a freak out about it.
If you are laughing about that right now, that probably means you know what I’m talking about.
I'm no stranger to these kinds of crises. They've shown up before, usually when I am on the cusp of something significant. A revise and resubmit request from an agent or an editor, a conflicting set of comments from beta readers you admire, or perhaps an editorial letter that appears to go against everything you have thought about for your story.
In the midst of my little freak out, I sent an email to my agent, who replied, “I see a writerly existential crisis as a great opportunity for creative breakthrough.”
That’s why we keep people like this around. And, after a new Diet Coke and a chocolate-covered cinnamon bear, I realized that she might be on to something.
There can be so many situations, as writers, when we are certain this is our ONE CHANCE and if we don’t get everything exactly right RIGHT NOW, it’ll never happen, we’ll be a hack forever, the ship will sail and our writing will drift into oblivion.
Spoiler alert: that kind of thinking isn’t healthy. And it’s not realistic. I’m not going to take the time here to give you examples of people who were not overnight successes but I recommend you go out and google your favorite actor, band, writer, artist – especially the ones who made it big, and see what work they had out before they made it big.
People who have been creating and on the internet for any amount of time have probably heard or read Ira Glass talking about “The Gap” (I personally love the video here).
Cate Kennedy, an advisor in my program said, “Be grateful for the gap because without it, you are creatively tone deaf.” We need to feel a little bit overwhelmed by the work that we are trying to do. We need to understand that seeing something that is amazing and not quite being able to also do the thing that is amazing is where growth happens.
I know. Blech. Growth hurts and it’s slow and it involves a bunch of readjustments. And worse of all, it takes time.
So what’s a writer on the verge of an existential crisis to do?
Keep a place where you can play with your ideas.
When I have a new story idea, I refuse the audacity to tell that idea I can’t pay attention to it right now. But sometimes I can’t play with it right now.
So I build it a sandbox, whether that is a folder on my computer, a single document, a note on my phone. In my conversation with my agent, I shared several ideas that I have. Two of them are only ideas – I’m talking concept and maybe a paragraph. But that lets me see what I’ve got going on, and sometimes, jotting down a sentence or two in the “fun” story is just what I need to shift my brain into drive.
Recognize that ground and pound might not be the best way.
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of ground and pound, you probably haven’t seen an MMA fight. The method there is to get the opponent on the ground until they tap out. If you have put yourself in a position where you view your writing as an opponent who needs to be conquered, guess what the reader is going to experience?
I’m not saying writing is easy. Besides parenting, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. And I know there are deadlines and such in the real world, but there are ways to meet those deadlines without beating yourself to death. I think we need to be engaged in writing all the time, maybe even every day, but sometimes writing looks like "ideas while folding clothes" or sorting out a character in a process notebook or doing research on a region or idea.
Nurture instead of beat. Think about it.
Remember: Finished is better than perfect.
There are a gazillion suggestions out there about how writers should write, and I’m never going to be the one to tell anyone what their process should be. However, if you have been working on the same poem, the same short story, the same chapter, the same scene for a LONG time, if you are not sharing your work with someone because it’s not good enough yet, and especially if you don’t have the blasted thing done...
My friend, you are caught in a dangerous loop.
Listen closely: you will never make it perfect on your own. No, seriously. You need others to look, to listen, to suggest. You need someone to say what they experienced when reading your story, to point out where they got confused, to reveal where the sentence structure or the exposition or the dialogue didn’t resonate as true.
You will never catch everything alone. Declare it finished for now and see how it sits in the world.
Finally, I have one more suggestion.
Write down when you have a little bit of a freak-out, whether that is in a running document or a journal or whatever. It is nice to be able to look back, to see how you thought that was the hard thing and then realized it wasn’t – not yet.
Too often, creatives are so caught up in the process of creating that we forget to check in on how the creation is going. A journal like this allows us to see where we had gaps, to remember that we figured out how to narrow them before, and gives us confidence that we can narrow them again.
What writerly existential crises have you survived? Any tips for how to stay grounded when the creative winds threaten to uproot you?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.