GOD I hate when I constantly hit the delete key. Lately, I've been doing it all the time and it's made me cranky.
Therefore, here's a post written completely from the heart -- I'm FORCING myself NOT to use the delete key. Just try it, Weisenheimer. It's not as easy as it seems.
So, WHY do I always hit delete? Is it because I want my words to be perfect?
Is it because I want you to love what you read?
Is it because I overwrite and need to condense?
God yes (and I'll confess...I initially wrote "Yes", then backspaced, added "God" and changed the capital "Y" to a lowercase "y". NOW do you see why I'm cranky? This time, I'm REALLY done using the delete key) .
Thing is, I can't cure cancer and I can't stop time and I sure as hell can't make anything perfect or please everyone or stop being who I am. All I can do is write in my most authentic voice, But, for what feels like a very long time, I haven't been writing that way. I've been trying to be someone I'm not. Actually, I've been trying to be too many things to too many people and constantly falling short. Story of my life, actually, but that's not the point.
What IS the point is that I started this writing career seven years ago hoping to write a novel.
I DID that. I wrote it and I was proud (SO proud) and it was a fine manuscript. Not sucky...but definitely not publishable (BTW, is that even a word? If not, it is now. You're welcome). At least, it wasn't publishable in the "traditional" sense. I suppose I could have self-published it but I didn't (again, you're welcome!). I knew my novel needed help, but I didn't know what that help looked like. I was stuck.
And so, I did what I do best: I AVOIDED REVISIONS.
I'm letting the manuscript marinate, I told myself.
So while those flavors developed, I distracted myself with anything that felt like true, creative passion. You've heard the term "starving artist", right? Well, I was hungry for creative energy, and when I couldn't find my way through my novel's problems, I became a "fixer" of sorts, anywhere I could. When one of my kids struggled with school -- I was ON IT! When one of the town's local cultural centers neared foreclosure -- I tried to SAVE IT! Time after time, I said "I'll DO IT!" rather than asking myself, "What do my characters need? What does my story need?" The idea of hitting the delete key on all the work I'd done was nauseating. Horrifying.
I'd lived and breathed these characters for several years, but after 8 rejections from ridiculously successful editors, the writing, it seems, was on the wall: Go back. It's not working.
I felt trapped.
Do I make the changes some of them suggest? Do I agree with those changes? If I do make the revisions, does everything else in the novel still ring true? Am I staying true to my characters? To my story? To my plot?
Do I even HAVE a plot?
And that's when it hit me.
I'd never plotted out my novel.
I'd gone from the gut, sketching out my characters as they came to me, as they presented themselves.
Oh, God, not in a creepy, "Hi, nice to meet you. I'd like you to write about me" sort of way, but in a Wow, I fell asleep thinking about my character again last night and she seems more and more real every time I picture her sort of way.
I wrote pages and pages of notes about my characters, my settings, my scenes...and then I strung them all together in a way that FELT right and true. I let the characters guide me. I'm not making this up. It wasn't some OUIJA board thing, like them telling me to open the D-O-O-R when the lady in B-L-A-C-K beckons. It was more like, My characters are telling me there's a moment here with a vacancy best filled with tenderness; who's going to do it? Anyone? Anyone?
My "process" (Snort! Like I actually have one?) carried me through to the end of, what Anne Lamott refers to as a "shitty first draft". Problem is, I was preparing for my Oprah spotlight as I typed "THE END". I couldn't see the shit through all those layers of mascara I'd applied for a close-up that never materialized.What I DID experience was an abrasive "makeup remover" of sorts -- otherwise known as a swift kick in the ass.
Stung by the polite rejections of eight amazing editors and uncertain how to proceed, I dove, head-first, into a swamp of a project in my town involving real estate, local politics, race relations, legal issues and financial wrangling. Let me just say, my mascara ran as fast as my heart as I tried to "fix" a situation I had no business touching. Driven only by a love of community and hope for the future, I wouldn't let go, no matter how many times my husband asked, "Why are you spending so much time on this? Don't you want to focus on your novel? You don't have to keep going..." But I felt like I had to. It didn't feel like a choice.
I can't give up, I told myself. I know this project takes away from my goal of getting published, but I can't give up on this project. I started to wonder if I'd ever get my novel published. If I don't, I told myself, that'll make TWO huge failures. NOW, I was stuck even deeper.
Soon, circumstances around the community project grew toxic. Our team, exhausted from too few people doing too much work defending what we'd worked so hard to build, disintegrated as others finally (and not so ethically) expressed interest in the project. Attempts to collaborate with the other groups failed, forcing our group to walk away.
"That's TWO," I told myself. "First the novel...now this."
It took me several months to lose my sadness, but as I'd catch flickers of light within the building we tried to save, I realized I wasn't meant to manage its CPR.
I don't regret the experience now (though if you'd asked me then, I'd have punched you in the face and told you to go to hell). I'd been determined to "fix" things for that little building, but what I couldn't see was that a "successful fix" only happens when the time is right, when the right characters are in place, and when there's an authentic story to tell; otherwise, it's just a quick fix. To be honest, I'm still not convinced the stars are aligned on the project, but I gave it my all and I'm hoping for the best. And as my husband reminded me (as my mascara ran down my cheeks), "Sometimes a leader's job is actually knowing when to step away."
And so I did. It was tough and I felt like I was neglecting it and failing. But I came to see that it was all part of the process.
I've gone back to my novel, finally. It took a fairy godmother of sorts to get me back there, but I was almost ready and she gave me the push I needed. I've overhauled the entire manuscript and am starting it from scratch. My fairy godmother encourages me to say, "You're not starting over. That was your 'Discovery Draft', and now you're writing the novel as it was meant to be written.'" And I KNOW she's right.
Patience. It seems to elude me wherever I go.
Sometimes wish I'd seen how necessary it was putting my novel in that metaphorical drawer, just living life...not looking back. Then again, I just couldn't let go of my characters or my story. A friend in my critique group once said, "The difference between a writer and and a published author is that the author never gave up."
And so, for all the regret I've carried about my novel taking so long to get published, I realize it's taking as long as it must take. I've had some things to do along the way that inform me as a writer, a community member, a mother, a friend. While learning certainly happens when we look around and listen, it also happens when we look back.
Therefore, I give myself permission to look back whenever I need to, asking whether it's worth holding on to something from my past.
And I also vow, moving forward, not to hit delete so much. This moment, right now, is not the time to second guess everything in our hearts and souls. If we're lucky, there'll be plenty of time for that silly business later.
Christine Wolf's work can be found in the Chicago Tribune Media Group's Pioneer Press and on www.ChristineWolf.com. As a community activist, Christine creates platforms allowing others to share their voices. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, their three children and two very vocal dogs.
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