What I Learned About Writing From the Nightmare Short Story

The year before I started college, I had a dream about a mysterious, lonely boy raising a large, beautiful garden of flowers that would quietly bring magic to the world. I didn’t have much to go on beyond some images and some feelings, but I knew this dream was a story, and I decided I had to bring it into the world.

It took me five years to write this dream into a short story. As of today, this story is still not finished.

For all my labor and determination, I have an enormous, messy rough draft stuck in the first round of revision, facing an uphill climb of cutting, outlining, and massive chunks of rewriting that will not get easier any time soon. When I come across the paper copy in my bag or spy the digital draft on my flash drive, I make a note to return “when I have time” and guiltily put it away. By this point, it might be easier for me to toss the thing, just chuck the paper, delete the file, and move on unburdened to the other projects that I have already prioritized for my writing time.

But I still like the story, or at least the idea of it. Plus, I went through five years of the writing process from hell to even get this far, and it would feel like a massive waste of time, energy, pain, and discovery to burn it now. It would also feel like a betrayal. It’s a ghost in my head right now, but this is the story where I cut my teeth as a younger, more naïve writer, where I learned so much about writing and my own creative needs that I could overcome my fears of perfection, inadequacy, commitment, and simple failure and finally start a novel when it was finished.

Part of what holds me back from finishing, what has always held me back, is the challenge of this story. I did not choose a bunny slope or a paint-by-numbers kit for my first major undertaking. Everything else I had written to that point was much shorter, had a much smaller cast and world, and had a much simpler plot with more external conflict. I had lofty aspirations to push myself in all of these areas all at once with “the garden story,” and cobbling together something sensible from dream bits rather than an inspired idea did not make it easier. Some of the resistance I feel today, surely, stems from the memory of how hard everything was.

But most of the problems in my original hell process were my fault. I broke so many of the important “writer’s rules.” I made mistakes and fell into pitfalls that all budding writers seem to hit as part of our growing pains, but I made them worse by being too stubborn to see what I was doing to myself or being too afraid of being a “bad writer” to admit how much of the problem was me. Until I was ready to do that, I couldn’t fix anything. Though I do wish I had come to my senses and learned my lessons sooner, I don’t think I could have reached this understanding about my writing without stumbling through these brambles at some point in the journey. Advice I had heard from more mature, experienced writers, including some beloved authors, before the project and since then just did not sink in or seem relevant to me until I faced them myself.

For one, I was absolutely terrible about trying to edit and write and getting hung up on the “perfect” draft. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft, or a second, or a third. I’m not sure anyone believes their story is ever “perfect,” just that at some point it is finished to their satisfaction (and those who would say their story is perfect never seem to be right). Writing is hard, and it’s a process that takes time, effort, patience, persistence, and a willingness to rebuild and redraw our plans when things fall apart. It’s easier to do if we recognize that a first try is a first try, that, if I may use a food analogy, we are inventing light bulbs, not making pancakes; instead of following a recipe with directions and ingredients that will give us a consistently tasty product every time, we are muddling through brilliant ideas and false starts to a world-changing invention with only our abilities, knowledge, imagination, and determination to bring us to the end. We should expect that our first draft will be like a rough draft, and so long as we try our best at the time and focus on finishing the story and getting our foundation in place, we can make it all pretty later.

When I tried to write this story, I felt the words should somehow flow elegantly and effortlessly from my pen with every line, like my art should grip me and set me aflame and scrawling through the night like it could strike me with animating lightning every time I opened my journal. My dream had held my rapt attention, so I felt I must already have all the divine inspiration and energy I needed to tear ink into my paper with movie montage intensity. Surely I could imbue my story with the same beauty and feeling I had experienced in an REM cycle. If I could not do that instantly with every word, if I wrote dozens of “wrong” words when obviously there was one “right” one just waiting at hand, then I was not good enough to be a writer.

This kind of thinking was toxic to my creativity and my passion. I was afraid of failing, so I was afraid to try. I would sit for hours with my journal in my lap and write and cross out minimal variations on the same paragraph or sentence over and over because they were never “good enough.” My notebooks from that time are messes of black scratches and scribbles with handfuls of words and phrases peering out of the dust storms. I felt triumphant and relieved when I could eke out five acceptable sentences in a writing session, as if I were fighting a war with myself and my writing. And I was, in a way. I had convinced myself that this story was a proving ground between my ability and my vision and that I could not move forward until every scene and moment on the battlefield was secured with palatable prose. But constantly stopping to criticize myself and start over wrecked my sense of flow and voice and took the joy out of writing and seeing where the story would go. It was awful to want to do the thing I loved more than anything else while feeling like it didn’t belong to me the way it should. Pursuing perfection before I had anything to perfect stilted and tortured my natural process and intuitive sense of storytelling, and it showed in writing that felt meticulously detailed but dry and lifeless.

Since then, I’ve understood why experienced authors and writers say that making a book is 20% writing and 80% revision. Some editing is fine, like when you think of a better phrasing and change something mid-sentence without breaking your flow, or when you need to clarify or expand a scene so you can build on it later. I do that now, and it helps rather than hinders. Some people get themselves back in their writing rhythm and the story’s mindset by giving the last paragraph they wrote some light edits before they draft new material. But trying to do second draft-level edits while writing is like editing before writing, and it’s impossible to go anywhere with the luggage before the cart before the horse. I would rewrite the same bit of dialogue 15 times before I “settled” for something I could fix later, like that was a bad thing instead of being utterly, productively, helpfully normal. The me who wanted to write the garden story five, four, three years ago could have used V.E. Schwab’s insight from her own trenches, that “This isn’t a matter of self-doubt and self-loathing. This is a matter of being WILLING to write badly. To let yourself fail over and over again, to resist the urge to hold down delete and get. To. The. End,” and about the futility of “trying to nail a landing without ever hitting the springs.” I find her whole post about fighting a roller coaster of doubt deeply familiar today, but I am not sure whether I would have taken it to heart before I suffered the hell process.

Accepting failure and imperfection was the best thing I learned from the garden story. I actually scrapped the whole damn thing and started from scratch three times before I decided I would not give up on the fourth until I could write a big, fat THE END in my journal. Before I could break the cycle of madness, I had to finally realize how much I wanted to write other things and how much the garden story was holding me back. Again, I didn’t hate the garden story itself, I still don’t, but I felt like I couldn’t give it up, especially after struggling for so long, so I decided I had to finish it so I could put it away and be free. Maybe I would never be satisfied with it, but it would be “done” enough for me to set it aside and move on.

This new resolve lifted a yoke from my shoulders. Parts of the story were still challenging to write, but since I no longer beat myself up for doing my best, I enjoyed the process again. My delight in writing and my confidence returned, and the “get to the end” principle I had finally learned improved my writing in other areas, too. I wrote and loved an ambitious, strange short story that went on to publication in my campus literary magazine. I wrote and loved a college award-winning screenplay. I started my first novel, something I had also put off for years because I didn’t feel I was “ready.” I was afraid of failing, and it held me back, but I had to do it many times to truly learn what worked for me and what I was capable of.

My other mistakes certainly didn’t help matters. For one, possibly because writing the story felt more like hard labor than fun and work, I found excuses not to write at all. It’s true that in college I didn’t have as much time or energy for my stories as I do now, but even with readings, essays, class, my job, my clubs, my literary magazine, my friends, all of that, I could have and should have made time. I’m not one of those authors who believe true “writing discipline” requires us to write 3,000 words or three hours every day, whichever comes last, but just 50 words every day is 350 words in a week. But in the hours I wanted to write on the school lawn, I worked on everything else. I spent more time drawing and coloring elaborate doodles for the story than adding to my draft.

And then, because I wasn’t writing, I had to explain to people why I wasn’t writing or why this story was done, so I complained verbosely about how hard the story was to anyone who asked. Unproductive complaining, beyond the common, cathartic vent, is a mistake. The story was difficult compared to everything I had done so far, but I should have spent my time and energy finding solutions instead of whining about the problems: “I have to do so much world-building in such a short amount of time!” Okay, so I should make an outline of the world’s characteristics and prioritize what readers need to know and when to keep up with the plot so I can find sensible ways to introduce—no, we’re not even going to think of that, we’re just going to rewrite a conversation about the magic gate eleven times. “His conflict is internal, but it’s spurred by the other characters, so it’s really hard to show when he’s a quiet grump.” Yes, it is hard to show the influence of other characters on the protagonist’s internal conflict when one of the protagonist’s defining characteristics is his resistance to opening up to himself or the other character, maybe someone knows a story in which an author does this successfully—oh, well, let’s forget about asking or looking this up. “I can’t decide if I need to explain where the garden came from and why he takes care of it. “It’s very important for the setting that I figure out how he gets salt!” “I’m stuck. Why does he let her stay in the garden? I need to decide that first.” Bah! The worst part of doing this stupid, unhelpful behavior that never does anything is that it feels like I’m doing something. I have acknowledged the problem in detail, therefore I have properly excused myself from progress and my work here is done, no need for further action. Don’t do this, it’s stupid.

Another naïve bumble was that I told all of my new college writer friends about my story as a bonding experience before I was really more than a few pages into my first attempt. I told them the plot, what my characters were like, how I got the idea, what my publishing plans were, etc., you know, all of the things I know now to never, ever do. Once I started having issues and the story refused to write itself, suddenly all of this optimistic sharing became an immense pressure to deliver. It felt like I couldn’t change the story from what I had said it would be, even when it needed to grow, and an imaginary sense of expectation and obligation to wow the people who were kindly invested in my story only fortified my conviction that it had to be perfect. When I scrapped it over and over, I felt guilty, too, because my lack of progress was embarrassing to admit every time someone well-meaningly asked me how the garden story was going and assured me I would figure it out. Giving someone part of my draft made me anxious and frightened of feedback instead of excited to reach a reader, and I usually came away more uncertain of my work than before.

Nowadays, I better understand the importance of flexible and open-minded writing over chasing an outline or imagined ideal. I also have a better gauge of my creative timeline and my boundaries as a writer. It’s not so much that I keep my stories “secret,” and I’m not sure I ever could, but I can tell better what I’m able to share about my work and when. No one needs to know the gritty details before I have finalized them, and keeping those details a bit more private while the story is still emerging from the rough, primordial ooze helps me focus on writing to the natural end and to my best effort. It’s just a more comfortable way to write; I can give my friends and writing partners an elevator pitch or a few major ideas or ask for help with specific things without feeling like I committed myself to one way or another or like I need to write for someone else. I’m sharing chapters of my novel with a close friend as I complete them because I like the feedback and find her enthusiasm and investment in the story encouraging, but I still hide “spoilers” from her that I know I need to keep to myself until they are in the plot. Right now, the story is all mine and only mine, and I feel confident that I can complete it and secure in the knowledge that, when I face the inevitable mistakes and failures in this rough draft, I can revise, change, and improve it to my liking.

Hopefully, when this novel is finished, I can give the garden story the time and treatment it deserves after all this years. I will consider it a triumphant success when I use the lessons it taught me to make it as splendid as I dreamed it was.

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