A decade ago. I quit my full-time job so I could write a novel. Then, in the span of two months, I wrote one. It was terrible, but it was pretty easy to write. I guess it’s easy to do something badly.
Luckily, I recognized that the novel was bad. So I enrolled in an MFA program, thinking this would teach me to be a better writer. And I suppose it did, in it’s way. I got pretty good at writing literary short stories. Got a bunch of them published in literary journals that no one reads. (See here.)
After graduating with my MFA, I tried to write another novel. This time it was harder. I was much more aware that I didn’t know what I was doing. (Because, truth be told, my MFA taught me NOTHING about writing novels.) As I was writing, I started to hate the novel, but I forced myself to finish. Then I stuffed it in a drawer, never to be looked at again.
Then I took a hiatus from writing and went back to working full-time as a high school math teacher.
For two years I hid behind a teaching job that sucked away all my time and creative energy. I didn’t tell anyone I was a writer. I wasn’t writing anything anyway. I was afraid of trying again and failing.
But then I turned 30 and told myself to get serious. I quit teaching and made the decision to focus on writing. I started reading books on how to write and plot novels. (In hindsight, I probably should have done this from the get-go and saved myself the thousands of dollars I spent on my MFA. Of course, then I wouldn’t have met a lot of my awesome writer-friends, or gotten to go to Spain and Mexico through my MFA’s study abroad program. There’s good and bad in every decision, yada yada.)
Anyway, I started writing novels again. Now that I knew the basics of plot, I understood better what I needed to do to write a satisfying novel. The first one came without too much of a struggle. (Although I spent the next three years revising it.) The next two were harder to write, and they weren’t very good either.
Still, I thought, I just need to keep trying. The next one will be better.
And I have continued to try. But here’s the problem: the more I learn about how to write a novel, the harder it gets to actually write one. I find myself practically paralyzed with the knowledge of all the things a novel needs to contain. I find myself stopping before I start, and when I do finally start, I find it nearly impossible to keep going.
Oh, how I pine for those days of blissful ignorance when I just sat down at my computer and let the words come flowing out of me, not worrying about character motivation or where the story was going or what the climax might be. Now, I feel like all this knowledge I’ve obtained is blocking me from actually writing anything. I brainstorm and outline. I make charts and plotting diagrams. I sit at my desk and stare out the window. But I can barely manage to eek out a page of prose without second-guessing what I’ve written and wondering if I should scrap the whole thing.
Back when I didn’t know how to write novels, I could write them with seemingly little effort. Not that I know (in theory) what to do, I find it agonizingly hard. And I’m getting really scared. I’m scared that I’m going to keep failing at this, and that’s making things even harder.
I’m not sure what to do.
Somehow I need to find a balance. I need some of that un-self-conscious, open-to-the-muses whimsy I had ten years ago. I need a part of myself that can stop judging my own writing for a minute and just let the words flow. But, I also need to make sure my novel has a decent plot and the sorts of things agents and publishers look for in a book. (Because that IS my goal — to get traditionally published.) So I need the planning and judgment aspect as well.
Perhaps most importantly, I need to stop being afraid because that’s making everything worse. In fact, maybe it’s not the knowledge that has been blocking me all this time. It’s been my fear. The fear that came when I learned how hard writing a good novel really is and started to worry I wasn’t up to the task.
My conciliation for now is this: if writing bad novels was easy for me, maybe writing a good novel will be difficult. Which means it’s okay for me to struggle – the fact that I’m having a hard time doesn’t mean I’m not cut out to be a writer. Maybe all this difficulty I’ve been having means I’m finally getting to the place where I’ll finally be able to write something good.
All of this reminds me of something Mary Kole says in her book Writing Irresistible Kid Lit:
“ …people trying to master something move through four stages, from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence,” to “conscious competence,” to “unconscious competence.”