Every year when our ML’s ask for pep talks, I shrug and say, “Well, if I think of something, I’ll let you know,” with an air of, but I can’t really think of anything. And every year, I suddenly have an idea in a shower. It’s usually something I need to hear, and so I say it someone else in hopes that maybe I’ll take my own advice.
This year, I wrote a week two pep talk about trusting yourself, about doubt, and about not giving up on your work.
I start drafts with a final picture in mind. A mood I want to achieve, a sort of story I want to tell, an atmosphere I want to capture — whatever it is, that’s where the story starts in my head, and I reverse-engineer the pieces from there. I find creative bursts to be wonderful, but they don’t sustain me through the drafting process. For me, writing a novel is a puzzle, a collection of pieces that need to be organized and slotted into the right spots to create that final picture.
Here’s the thing about puzzles: you have that box with the wonderful picture on the front, but what you’ve actually got is a jumble of pieces that, individually, look nothing like the picture. No one expects to open a puzzle box and find a perfectly formed puzzle put together for them. Expecting it from the first draft of a novel is just as absurd.
And yet, that’s the trick to drafting for me, and the thing that stops me from writing. I’m motivated by gazing upon my final product and seeing it put together, and thus I find drafts hard to finish and easy to abandon at the first stumbling block.
Here in week two, your jumble of pieces may seem worse than when you started, now that the optimism of a shiny new box doesn’t have the same motivating power. You’ve got fistfuls of pieces and you’ve barely found any matches and it’s all getting to be too much. Maybe you lost the box and don’t remember exactly what that final picture is supposed to look like. Maybe you thought this puzzle was going to end with a picture of a dragon, but it’s starting to look like these puzzle pieces actually make a spaceship. Maybe your cat stole a few pieces and threw them in a vent and you’re not sure how you’re going to fill that in yet. It’s easy to second-guess if these two pieces go together when you have a dozen pieces that all look like trees, and it’s hard to confidently say, “I’m putting these two pieces together here, and I’ll be able to tell if it’s wrong later.”
That’s the secret, friend: you have to trust yourself as a writer. Doubt is likely starting to creep in — What do I even plan to do with this? What’s the point? How can I even finish a novel if I’m stuck on this scene? What am I supposed to do when it’s done, anyway? Am I even really a writer? — and doubt is poison to the heart.
I can’t tell you the answers to the doubts lingering in the corners of your mind, the ones that are causing you such pause and fear and heartache that putting together this puzzle feels like too much. I could try, but honestly, only you know the answers to some of them. The rest probably can’t be answered because they’re not real questions: they’re the things you’re afraid of that you can’t control, and they shouldn’t stop you from forging on.
So, forge on, and remember the rules of puzzling: start with the corners, build out the boundaries, and put together the clumps of pieces that you do recognize. Be mindful of the shapes of the pieces, and how they fit together. Revel in watching the final picture come together, and know that once you’re done, you’ll be glad that you trusted your instincts.