Even when I have an outline, I start strong and then have trouble closing posts. Hours (sometimes days) of work have gone into each. I want to break free from this pattern and publish more regularly. I’m not having trouble writing, and I’m not having trouble making time to write; I’m drowning in a sea of semi-completed work. Why don’t I finish my creative projects?
Drowning in Doubt
Writers often abandon an essay because they don’t really know what they are supposed to accomplish. After a few paragraphs in which they describe a memorable experience or state an opinion, they stop, sensing they haven’t made their readers care. As I’ve discussed in earlier columns, what the writer needs to do is make sure she isn’t stating what she already knows but is exploring a question that perplexes her about that opinion or experience. Searching for an answer to that question will motivate the writer to solve the mystery.
In another column, I suggested coming up with an organic form for your essay — a narrative, a journey, an investigation, or an experiment — and allowing that structure to guide you from beginning to end.
But with you, Drowning, I sense something more is going on. You have an outline, so you must see your project as a whole. Maybe you stop midway because you are afraid your essay isn’t worth completing.
Like most of us, you worry your ideas aren’t original or important enough to impress your readers. Your language is stale or flat. No one will be moved enough by your words to stop racism, misogyny, or global warming. If you were smarter or more talented, writing would be far easier. What could be so hard about getting your ideas on the page in a clear, compelling, lyrical, and entertaining way?
In reality, nothing is more excruciatingly difficult than figuring out what you think. If you already know what you are trying to say before you sit down to say it, you are writing bromides, propaganda, or clichés. That’s why you should consider your earliest efforts to be “zero drafts,” in which you are figuring out what you think rather than coming up with an eloquent, polished, or even coherent version of your final product.
Early in my career, I took a vow never to move on to the next project until I completed at least two drafts of whatever I had started, no matter how much I loathed it. You need to take a similar vow, Drowning. Draw up a formal contract, get witnesses, and sign the pledge. Promise you will always complete any project you start, taking it from zero draft to publication. Or promise you won’t juggle more than two or three projects at a time — letting a fragment of the first one sit while you finish a zero draft of the second, then polishing the third before you go back and complete the first and revise the second, but never, ever going on to a fourth project until those first three are in the bag. If you don’t fulfill that contract, you may never publish anything. And if you do finish what you start, you will develop a track record of your own success, which will make finishing your next essay or post more routine.
Over the years, I’ve learned patience with what Anne Lamott calls the shittiness of early drafts. Slowly, I’ve developed confidence in my ability to complete, publish, and sometimes win awards for work that made me sick to my stomach until the second — or fifteenth — revision.
I also learned I desperately need the advice of friends who will read those early fragments and help me figure out what I am trying to say. Many writers are ashamed to show anyone their work because they are embarrassed by how stupid or poorly written a draft might be. Admittedly, you need to be careful whom you trust. But if you find even one friend with whom you can trade your work, you can nudge each other toward completing the drafts you’ve started.
Or maybe you stop halfway because you dread reaching the end and discovering your conclusion is corny or unoriginal. Like figure skaters, writers must top a gravity-defying series of jumps and spins with a perfectly timed and balanced flourish. This can place so much pressure on the performer, she chokes in the middle of the routine and falls.
One remedy might be to put less emphasis on your conclusion. If the reader has been engaged all along, you might not need a slam-bang finale. If your ending seems corny or trite, maybe you are trying to teach your readers a lesson or illustrate a universal truth rather than provide the answer to the question you’ve been focused on from the start. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know before. Anything you’ve discovered along the way will seem original to your readers.
When I wrote my investigative memoir The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club, I was trying to figure out why I had left physics even though I had earned a degree, with honors, and was passionate about the study of space and time. I reached the conclusion that everything about our culture discourages women and people of color from going on in the sciences, while the ethos among science professors is that anyone who needs encouragement isn’t cut out to be a scientist. After all the years I had spent researching and writing my book, this “discovery” struck me as so obvious I almost decided not to publish it.
And yet, readers found those same conclusions to be so shocking the book helped spark a movement to bring more women and people of color into the hard sciences. One African-American engineer thanked me for speaking the truth about his life. When I told him I felt as if I were telling everyone the sky is blue, he said, “Oh, sister. You may know the sky is blue. And I may know the sky is blue. But a whole lot of people out there do not know the sky is blue.” The truth was, until I had examined my own experience and listened to other people’s voices, I hadn’t noticed the color of the sky myself.
Then again, Drowning, you might simply be afraid no one will publish what you are working on, or you will be savaged by trolls, or your readers will dispute your findings. These aren’t pleasant prospects. But none of those outcomes would kill you. A person might train for months to compete in a marathon, only to come in second… or twenty-fifth. Even the most naturally gifted runner sometimes barely stumbles across the finish line. Find your motivation the way world-class athletes do: by glorying in the difficulty of the challenge. (I admit I often play the theme songs from Rocky and Chariots of Fire to stoke my enthusiasm and endurance.) As long as you finish the race, you can take pride in having accomplished what so few people even try.
If you are anything like the rest of us, you might also hear voices in your head chiding you that you’re not a writer. You’re no one special. You’re not an authority on this topic. You’re not Hemingway, Joan Didion, or Toni Morrison. The project you are working on is total crap. Ask yourself to whom those voices belong. A parent? A teacher? A former spouse? One of the voices I hear most often is my brother’s. Another belongs to an editor who rejected an essay I wrote in my early twenties. “Who would care what you have to say?” this editor scrawled at the bottom of his rejection, even though I had far better credentials than any of the young male writers he was glad to publish.
Once you have identified the voices, Drowning, you need to tell them to shut up. In my case, I needed years of therapy to silence my brother’s sarcastic put-downs. As to that editor… 30 years after he rejected my essay, I found myself teaching with him at a conference. One of my pieces had just been selected for Best American Essays, and the editor demanded to know why I hadn’t submitted it to him so he could have been the one to publish it. “Really?” I said. “Let me explain to you why I didn’t.”
None of what I’m recommending is easy. The problem you describe is the most daunting obstacle to any writer’s success (and the topic of the greatest number of letters The Draft receives). What makes the struggle easier is taking pride in confronting and overcoming it. When I coach writers who are working on novels or nonfiction books, I assure them the only real threat to completing their manuscripts is the fear they will never finish. Imagine you are a mountain climber. You have all the necessary skills to achieve the summit — you know how to write a good sentence, a coherent paragraph, an exciting chapter. But if you look up and see how far you have to go, or if you look down and get dizzy thinking about what might happen if you fall, you might freeze halfway up the cliff, or give up and rappel back down.
Instead of constantly stopping and judging your progress, focus on reaching up and putting your fingers in that next crack above you. Others with weaker wills might surrender to their fear of failure, but you will persevere until you finish that essay, and then the next one, and the next one after that.
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