It sometimes takes up to a decade to figure out how to write a first novel. I’ve been writing short fiction for at least that long, and I can barely bring myself to admit that during this time I’ve attempted to write not one but several novels that I’ve picked up and abandoned multiple times. Many writers who have persevered tell similar stories whereby, if the numbers were boiled down, it often takes something like six to eight years of fighting the process and two years of finally acquiescing and getting the work done. Author Susanna Daniel has written one of the most insightful articles I’ve read on this topic for Slate.
Here’s one of her most salient points:
There is surely a word—in German, most likely—that means the state of active non-accomplishment. Not just the failure to reach a specific goal, but ongoing, daily failure with no end in sight. Stunted ambition. Disappointed potential. Frustrated and sad and lonely and hopeless and sick to death of one’s self.
I wonder about strangers in similar situations, artists of all ilks. I wonder if they wake in the night, their hearts racing, unable to feel anything but the fear and frustration and disappointment of the fact that they haven’t finished anything in a month. I wonder if they’re anything like me. My guess is that many of them are—and naturally I feel tremendous empathy. Having been there, I know there are no magic words of encouragement, no surefire tough-love tactic. I wish there were.
So what exactly are we all doing during these eight years of active non-accomplishment?
Finding Our Stories: The urge to write a novel often precedes knowing what to write about. We may think we have a great idea, but often once we sit down to bang it out (and that’s what we dream we’ll do), we discover the story is not able to carry off all we thought it would. If I had to guess, I’d bet that the bulk of our “active non-accomplishment” period is spent trying to nail down the story we’re meant to tell. For what may add up to four or five years, we wander about aimlessly, trying to find the elusive story. To this end, we draw up character sketches and outlines. We research stuff. We read other novels and generally try to puzzle out the shape of our stories, which only seem to grow murkier. Ralph Ellison said it took him so long to write a novel because he had a deep uncertainty about what he was doing. This is the heart of the matter. We are driven by something we cannot name, a hunch, an instinct. And more than that, we trust this thing, this urge, even before we have a story in hand. We are compelled to say something, to speak, even before we have any inkling what it is we feel so urgently we must say. This creates that anxiety that Susanna Daniel refers to, that restlessness that wakes us in the middle of the night in a cold panic.
Losing Our Way: Once we do have a story in hand, we begin in earnest, working feverishly until at some point we realize we’ve stepped off the path. That’s when we tend to do one of a couple of things. We either go into a tailspin that makes us grasp at our novels desperately, or else we calmly step away for a little perspective until the story goes so cold we can no longer find its pulse. The results are the same, but our responses may be different. We may doggedly persevere even though we have utterly lost command of the ship, or else we may seize up so profoundly from fear that we avoid writing at all costs. We busy ourselves with writing-related projects. Freelancing gigs, editorships, academic pursuits. Or we may abandon writing for a return to real life where things have long been neglected. We whip our lives into shape. We get our houses in order. We work on our relationships again. We exercise, for God’s sake. We chase our tails in this manner, I’m guessing, for at least a couple years off and on.
Releasing Ourselves: Once we seize up, it can feel impossible that we’ll ever begin again. Writer’s block is like a Chinese finger trap. The more we struggle, the more firmly it grips us. If we’re lucky, we’re able to see this most holy of truths at some point. The burdens we carry for so many years — to find the story, to finish, to land an agent, to publish — all of it begins to burn away like morning mist. We realize that none of that stuff matters. All that matters is following our instincts. Early on we trusted them implicitly, but somewhere along the way we forgot what we always knew. And that is simply to put down one word and then another and another. To trust that our hearts and intuitive minds know more than our intellects about what we’re doing. We don’t know what we’re doing; that’s the rub! We have to learn to be okay with that. Learn to breathe, relax, and do as .38 Special advises: hold on loosely.