Pain & suffering: the writing process

May 28, 2010

My non-writing friends often say: I don’t know how you manage to write like that.

It must seem like alchemy, this making words come together in meaningful ways. I’m also sure they believe writers just sit down and that good stuff comes out whole and instantly.

Maybe this anecdote in the continuing saga of the essay on which my memoir is supposed to be based will provide some insight and answer the question. Remember that I thought I had a good draft.

The essay still sucked in the version I thought I liked.

Memoir requires telling the writer’s truths and those truths might not be all that comfortable. In the five versions I’d already written I was dancing around the events and emotions that would make people — and me — squirm.

Didn’t want to go there and used all my skills to avoid it.

Once I sent it out, I KNEW it sucked. It was a story but it was flat, still just a recitation of events. Bad, bad, bad. Oh, it was a nicely written recitation of events. But devoid of meaning.

At that point I had a spasm of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Maybe my writing skills are gone. Maybe I don’t have talent enough to do this. Maybe everything good I’ve written before this was a fluke.

Oh yeah, that was where I went.

I walked around the house talking to myself, trying new concepts and sentences out loud, talking myself into being more courageous. I must have looked and sounded like a madwoman.

Coming to terms with the emotional content that I’d been avoiding was an ugly process. I knew I had to take a new approach and had no idea where to begin. But then, on my way to the store, thoughts came fast and furious. I had to stop every block or two to take notes: alternative phrases, concepts, entire sentences that occurred to me.

It happened, I’m certain, because a writer-friend slapped me upside the head via email about the new draft, saying that he knew I was “a big girl” and could take it. He was right. I not only could take it, I needed it.

Funny thing was, I had the start to another essay in my file that began almost EXACTLY the way he suggested I begin this one.

Exactly. I’d written it 18 months ago.

It’s astonishing how someone so many miles away, whom I’ve never met in person, could know so much about me that he’d get it — except that over these good many years he’s read and critiqued a lot of my most emotional essays as a member of the internet writing workshop I belong to. If you know someone’s personal essays, you know them. Maybe better than people in real life.

After that come-to-Jesus correspondence, I quickly wrote pieces of what I thought the REAL essay was, full of emotion and reality.

He loved it. He made some significant restructuring suggestions and so I’m ready to get back to it.

I tried some of the new copy out on a trusted friend who knows my work. He said that it was some of the rawest stuff he’s ever seen from me and that it laid my emotions bare.

Yeah. That was why I resisted it.

The only thing to do is to write it the right way and see what it looks like. I’m still afraid of collateral damage.

But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. First, let’s see what I have.

So, if you think we just sit down and produce pearls of wisdom, nope. It’s painful, this writing thing. If it’s done right. You really have to look at your own work with a critical eye, and that’s what most wanna-be writers are unable to do. They either lack the training or the eye.

Like I’ve said before: anyone can put words on a screen. But not everyone can write.

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