Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Do You Do It?

I don't know if you regularly look at the comments on these posts or return to see what other folks have said after you've left your mark; I get the wonderful task of moderating all that lands on the Elephant's Bookshelf, so I see them all. But if you didn't come back, you may have missed a great question from a reader who I presume is a relatively new writer.

Dr3am3r said, "I've just begun working on a manuscript, and the enormity of the task freaks me out like nothing I have ever before experienced. How do you all do it? What keeps you focused and how do you not become overwhelmed?"

As someone who has penned stories and poems and songs and anything else my little heart imagined since I was a small child, I can't really speak to the whole freaking out part of things. I've always written and started without any expectation of making money at it. As I grew up, I was more concerned with telling stories that I thought were interesting, and if I could get other people interested in them too, all the better. But I've worked with writers most of my professional life, and I've seen some of them freak out. I accept that the blank sheet of paper can be daunting.

The question reminds me of the story behind the name of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I don't have the book in front of me at the moment, but it went something like this: As a young girl, she was putting together a report about birds and hadn't done all her research. The night before the report was due, she was in tears and her father asked why. She confessed what had happened and he agreed to help her. "How are we going to get it done? There's so many of them!" And he said, "We'll go through them one at a time, bird by bird."

Again, I may have gotten some of the facts wrong, but the gist of it is that her dad helped and explained that to reach your goal, you take it step by step. Perhaps I even said something like that when I offered a review of Bird by Bird back when the Bookshelf was still a young elephant.

But I'll ask you all, fellow readers and writers, how do you do it? What compels you to tell a story? What makes you go back to the story you've started to make it better? How do you overcome the seemingly enormous task of writing a novel? What have you been smoking to make you think you can do this and do it well?

8 comments:

Brian James said...

As far as what keeps me going back to work on a story over and over again (besides the obvious contractual obligations) is that I'm not happy until the story on the paper matches the tone and feeling that I had in my head when I set out on the project.

The thing about novel writing that I've learned along the way, is that with each one you write, you learn more about how to identify the many pitfalls, traps and dead ends. It never gets easy, but it does get easier to navigate. It's like anything in that once you develop a process that works for you, it no longer feels quite as daunting.

Matt Sinclair said...

I think that's true, Brian, and thanks for sharing your experience. I've only "completed" one novel (which has not yet sought an agent and is obviously unpublished), but the experience taught me a lot that I've applied to the writing of my second.

Your comment reminds me of a profile I wrote a couple years ago for my college alumni magazine. I'd interviewed a painter who said he's never produced anything he felt was perfect. "I think if I did, I wouldn't paint any more," he said.

I liked that comment because it kinda takes the artist off the hook. The goal isn't perfection, it's something that works effectively.

caroline_hagood said...

I do it bird by bird. I love how you described that. Actually, the only way I keep going is that I'm so neurotic that if I didn't write it down, I'd be so bothered by those thoughts. Seriously. Oh and I love it. Oh and then I give up for a short time and come back. It's really more like a dysfunctional relationship than anything:)

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Caroline. I've experienced similar sorts of relationships. (Why am I always the boomerang?) Especially with stories and their fictional characters.

I actually wrote a song along those lines called "A Song I've Forgotten How to Play." To this day, it remains unperformed in front of an audience, but it tends to be the one I futz around with when I pick up my guitar. It just feels right.

caroline_hagood said...

Ha, I'd love to hear that one.

Matt Sinclair said...

So would I. It's been far too long since I performed live. If I do, I'll make sure to let those in the NYC area know about it.

dr3am3r said...

Thank you, Matt Sinclair, for taking the time to blog about my question. It's one that has been burning in my mind since this manuscript that I referred to has been one that I inherited. It did not come to me in whispers but in a surprise attack.

I have not yet read Bird by Bird, but I have enjoyed some other writings by Anne Lamott.

Something else that I've clung to is Matthew 6:34, "Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." And so, I try to keep a focus in life.

Thank you.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks. I'm glad you were pleased, and I hope you continue to write and develop your work.