Every time I start to write a new piece—a story, a novel, a blog post—I get a sinking feeling in my gut, my chest constricts and a sigh slips through my lips. The glorious piece of writing floating in my mind sprawls on the page like a pig wallowing in the mud. A big smelly mess. What is worse than not writing? Writing poorly. If you don’t write, no one will know that you stink. Well, that your writing stinks. (It’s good to separate your self-worth from your work, though most writers will say that’s near impossible.)
So I’m staring at a page or two, or twelve or thirty, of muddy prose. What do I do? Remember that roller coaster of euphoria and despair I mentioned in my last post? (I Have a Blog!) Well, the cure for both those unrealistic emotional states is the same: revise. The prose is muddy for a reason: drain a little moisture out of it, and it becomes pliable, like clay.
I have learned that the dull words and ill-formed sentences mucking up my Great Idea are part of my writing process. I start with the proverbial shitty first draft, and then wade around in it for a while until I find my way to a little less shitty second draft, and repeat. I have to stop bemoaning the mud and dig deeper for the clay, out of which, eventually, a well-crafted piece will emerge.
The most important thing is to get your idea down, the gist, a glimmer (nod to Pam Houston), something, anything to get words on the page. Do not be discouraged if these words do not do your story or essay or poem justice—these first words are not your story, they are the way to the story. They are the building blocks, the raw material, the lump of clay out of which you will build and shape your piece, slowly, painstakingly, with a few Jenga-like tumbles, a few dead-ends, and while the sinking feeling will return during this process, the words will get more accurate, the sentences will stop bogging down and start to flow.
The more you write, the more you’ll understand your own process, and learn to trust that process. The more you write, it gets better, it gets easier. It also gets worse, and harder, but keep writing and it gets better and easier, and on and on.
So what is worse than not writing? Nothing. Not writing is the worst thing a writer could do. Much better to write poorly, pile up that clay and then revise your way to a well-written, finished piece.
What is your process for beginning a piece? For getting the first draft down? At what point do you tend to despair? And then what do you do? Love to hear from you in the comments.