About nine months before I wrote my first book, I told my former high school English teacher to stop asking when I was going to write a novel.
“I’m never going to be that kind of writer,” I explained. “I’m a critic. I write nonfiction.”
As a PhD student, what I said was true. I loved being an English nerd, and I was good at reading other people’s books and thinking through the problems they presented.
As the person who had taught me literature, my teacher understood. But maybe she also sensed the truth: There existed a secret part of me, one I’d papered over with critical essays, that longed to make rather than just dissect.
Because I had papered over that part, I had decided long ago that I wasn’t any good at creative writing because it was so hard. Ideas for essays, on the other hand, came to me easily. Reading a book, any book, turned my brain into something resembling the finale of a fireworks display. I could see multiple opportunities for arguments about gender, sexuality, power, and all the other juicy theories I’m obsessed with.
But when I sat down to write something creative, nothing happened. I vividly remember buying a how-to writing book right after graduating and thinking, Okay. You’re going to do this. Go write the Great American Novel!
I typed a sentence based on one of the book’s writing prompts.
It sat on the monitor in front of me like a steaming pile of shit.
I erased it and typed another one. It was equally shitty. I deleted it and tried again.
I did this for about 10 minutes, typing and deleting, until I had an epiphany.
I’m not meant to be a writer. At least not of fiction. Shouldn’t it be easy, if it was what I was meant to do? Writing essays was a piece of cake, so if this was hard, it probably meant I should give up.
The how-to book disappeared, along with my delusions of creativity. I became a critic, which I told myself was a perfect balance. After all, I was writing. Successfully! But it all led to that moment when I teared up as I told my teacher to leave me alone. I’d had my epiphany, and I knew I would never be that kind of writer. If I had to accept that and move on, so did she.
Nine months later, I wrote a novel.
Not only did I write a book, but I sold it to an imprint of Hachette in a three-book contract. Another three-book contract followed.
Needless to say, it was the best crow I’ve ever eaten.
So what happened between my epiphany and writing the books I swore I would never be able to write?
Simple: I learned to engage with the process, rather than trust it.
Which is why my teeth itch every time I see advice to “trust the process.” There’s the sports etymology, which seems to make sense until you realize people use what was really a cynical strategy for gaming the NBA draft system as another way of expressing something more akin to Nike’s famous “Just Do It” slogan. In this version, “trust the process” is shorthand for the idea that you have to do the time in the gym or on the training field to reap the benefits. But that wording is so incredibly passive. I’m not trusting anything when I’m halfway through a run (one of the things I hate most in the world) or feeling my thighs trembling in Warrior pose (yoga being the only thing I hate more than running). Rather, I’m actively engaged in something that feels fairly terrible, but I know I have to do it because I’m damn sure gonna eat that piece of leftover birthday cake.
Even more annoying is the version I think of as #trusttheprocess (pronounced, using one’s driest tone, “hashtagtrusttheprocess”). It’s the magical thinking version in which one gives oneself over to some mysterious process, in order to become an artist, find love, or lose eleventy-thousand pounds. An internet search of “trust the process” yields seemingly hundreds of search results on articles, blog posts, and self-published books featuring phrases like “having faith,” “letting go,” “divine plan,” and “the universe.”
In other words, a strange paradox exists within the idea of “trust the process.” On one side, there’s the illusion of an activity: Sixers fans were supposed to hold tight while their new GM enacted a strategy involving losing games in the short term to win over the long term. That morphed into a sports analogy in which the process part is inferred (doing the time in practice to win when it counts). And then that sports analogy (which actually references vast amounts of effort) became a hashtag that’s all about letting go, trusting a higher power, and having faith that one day, if you believe enough, you’ll succeed.
I see this last hashtag version most often applied to romantic love and, even more problematic, the creative process.
It’s one thing to sit around waiting for Mx. Right to come along and sweep you off your feet. After all, no matter how many slightly hysterical Thought Catalog or Buzzfeed listicles we read, we can’t actually make a romantic opportunity spring up out of the dirt like a golem. Meeting someone does require a frisson of luck.
But what I’ve learned about creativity, mostly as as result of denying I could ever be creative, is sitting around and waiting for it to happen guarantees only one thing: It will never happen.
So how did I write my books, after believing I never could, if I didn’t learn to trust the process?
First, I had to learn why trust wasn’t part of anything I’d ever done well.
Let’s take my seemingly magical ability to sit down with a three-page story and come up with roughly 75 ideas for essay topics. By the time I was a college graduate, that process felt utterly natural. It was reflexive, like breathing, or kicking a titstarer in the shins. I could sail into a final exam knowing I’d ace the long essay part because I could trust the shit out of my process.
What I’d forgotten is the roughly 14 years of practice I put in before I got to that point.
My ability to write academically wasn’t something I could trust — until I could. I had forgotten that various teachers, over years of schooling, had cultivated my natural aptitude for reading and writing into something that felt effortless. This is what people mean when they apply “trust the process” to athletics. If you force yourself to run every day for months, there will finally come that morning when you get up, don your gear, and go for a run without ruing the day you were born. It will feel natural. You’ve magically become a runner, even though it once felt like torture.
And it will feel like torture again if you get sick and don’t run for a week, or you decide to train for a marathon.
Feeling like my once-trusted process had turned on me is exactly what I experienced when I went from undergrad to doing a PhD.
I went to school in Scotland, so I could jump directly from a B.A. to a PhD. program. This seemed like an excellent idea, especially because I’d felt so utterly competent at my undergraduate university. I got As fairly effortlessly, at least in my major — we won’t talk about the C- in Latin, which I barely earned by throwing myself at extra-credit projects with the gusto I hadn’t used on studying the actual language. I sauntered into my PhD program expecting the same results — and immediately became aware I was in way over my head.
Everything I submitted was wrong. Where once my papers had been handed back all but pristine except for praise and occasional excited questions pointing out possible further research, each page of my thesis drafts could have stood in for a scaled-down model of the Red Wedding. Whole paragraphs were slashed, ideas were questioned, and my supervisor kept writing “FLABBY” in the margins. No one wants to be called flabby, even if it’s for syntax.
There were a lot of come-to-Jesus moments when I had to let go of a theory I cherished or an idea that wouldn’t pan out no matter how many times I had at it.
It got so bad that I stopped handing anything in and turned to the Type A’s favorite form of productive procrastination: research.
“I’m reading up on an important topic!” I’d respond to my supervisor when he’d email, asking when he could expect another draft of my first chapter.
“Still reading! I’m thinking of incorporating some Derrida,” I’d say a few weeks later, hoping it sounded important enough to warrant another extension.
Finally, after a few months of avoiding handing in anything, my supervisor threatened to murder me if he didn’t have something by Monday.
I sent him some draft. It came back looking like it had spent the week on an abattoir floor.
So I went to see him. I sat in his office and I told him the truth.
“I’m clearly not cut out for this. I should quit.”
My supervisor gave me his best “bloody Americans” face, consisting of equal parts exaggerated patience and “you owe me a pint.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
I pointed to the viscera-stained manuscript leaking red ink onto his desk.
“It’s awful. I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough.”
He sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, and leaned forward to give me The Talk.
“This is the process,” he said, gesturing at my manuscript. “Yes, this is shit. But there’s some good stuff there. So take it home, pick that good stuff out, and get rid of the rest. Add some more words. Some of it will be also be shit. But some of it will be okay. We keep repeating that until you have something that will pass. That’s the process.”
“Just keep polishing the turd,” he added, clearly wondering how I’d ever been accepted into university.
I picked up my turd and went home. I started polishing it, and it worked. Eventually I had a half-decent chapter. I did the same process with subsequent chapters until I had a turd so shiny it earned me a PhD.
My supervisor taught me two things: (1) there was a process and (2) there was no trust involved.
There was a lot of hard work, yes. But more than work went into my degree. There were a lot of come-to-Jesus moments when I had to let go of a theory I cherished or an idea that wouldn’t pan out no matter how many times I had at it. I let go of a whole author — I’d wanted to write on three but just didn’t have the space. And I was constantly coming up against the limits of my own intelligence. I’d try to read the aforementioned Derrida, and then realize I needed to start with Derrida for Dummies before working my way up to the man himself. All of these felt like real setbacks, and an earlier version of me would have paused and wondered if I was good enough if things didn’t come naturally. But I was lucky to have a supervisor willing to threaten bodily harm if I didn’t get over myself, a tactic I now employ when my M.F.A. students refuse to turn in their own drafts.
Sometimes we have to be told not to trust ourselves. After all, humans are self-protective. We avoid things that are hard. We make ridiculous excuses to keep from engaging with what we really want, and we’ll do pretty much anything to avoid failure (even if failure is good for us). Knowing what we do of human nature, how can we trust that we’ll magically become the person we want to be, and reap the commensurate awards?
Instead of waiting for genius to spring from my fingertips, I started writing, knowing what I wrote would suck.
All these experiences came to a head when I wrote my own novel, the book I said I was never going to write.
It was right after I’d successfully defended my thesis and was interviewing for teaching jobs in the States. I’d been using my parents’ house in Chicago as a base to fly to on-campus interviews, desperate for a job. But now I had to fly back to Edinburgh and wait for graduation and to hear back from the hiring committees.
Before my flight I went to a bookstore, where I realized that after years of being limited to my research topic, I could now read whatever I wanted. So I ended up with a stack of books from the sci-fi/fantasy section, a genre I hadn’t read in years, not since becoming a “serious” reader of “real” literature.
And on the long flight I read the fifth book in Charlaine Harris’s delightful Southern Vampire Mystery series, the basis of HBO’s True Blood. I was going through a lot at the time (mainly leaving Scotland and a long-term partner, and feeling panicky about the depressed job market), but for about six hours I read the book cover to cover and didn’t think once about my own problems. I was completely in Sookie’s world, falling in love with were-tigers and chasing vampires through swamps. In other words, I was happy for the first time in what felt like months because I could escape all of my anxieties.
And something else was happening in my brain. The nerdy part was comparing this delightful book to ones I’d read as a kid and pointing out similarities. I could see the beginnings of a sort of recipe I could use to bake my very own fantasy novel.
I loved this, I thought upon landing, as I closed the book and sat back, satisfied.
You could write your own, whispered another part of my brain.
I told that part to shush, of course. I reminded it that I’d had my epiphany: I was never going to be a writer. I was happy being a critic.
But you could write one, it insisted.
I ignored it and went back to my flat in Leith. The next morning I woke up and the voice was still there.
So I sat down at my computer and I opened up a new document. But instead of waiting for genius to spring from my fingertips, I started writing, knowing what I wrote would suck. It wouldn’t start in the right place; I’d miss a million opportunities and squander about a dozen more; it would need a ton of work and things I thought were genius would need to be slashed.
Never trust the process. Instead, trust what you can control. Your butt in a chair. Your fingers on a keyboard. Your ability to take criticism and learn from it.
My Jane True series was born of this moment, and the writing followed swiftly. I’d draft a (terrible) chapter and send it to my friend and colleague Jimmy, who would suggest ways to polish my turd. I repeated this process until I had a whole book. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I had faith it could be made better if anyone wanted to show me how.
Luckily, someone did. First an agent, and then an editor.
When I tell people I published my first book, this is technically true if we’re talking about fiction. But it’s also a lie. After all, I’d already written a book — that’s what a PhD thesis is. And that book taught me how to kick my process in the giblets.
This is not to say I learned a foolproof method for writing.
In the years since becoming a successful writer, I’ve had huge failures, like two trunked books that took years of work but simply never gelled. In other words, I still can’t trust the process. As soon as I thought I could, the process kicked me back.
These failures, interestingly, led me to my new passion, writing essays like this one, another genre I always admired but never thought I’d be able to do. So I took a class, started drafting, and got lots of feedback on how to polish my turds.
So please, take my advice on writing. Never trust the process. Instead, trust what you can control. Your butt in a chair. Your fingers on a keyboard. Your ability to take criticism and learn from it, either to grow, to modify your approach, or even to realize when you’re legitimately chasing your tail.
Trust your own hard work and the voice that says, “This is difficult but I enjoy it.” And trust that it will hurt sometimes. Trust that it will be a turd. Trust that turds can be polished.
Even, maybe especially, if you’ve told yourself you’re not capable.
Imagine how glorious it would be to discover you actually are?