We all want to blame the writing. When it’s not going well, we scowl at our creations, muttering horrible things about them under our breath and indulging in violent fantasies that involve the delete key and/or the shredder. And indeed, any kind of writing that goes beyond composing grocery lists or taking dictation is apt to misbehave. At its best, writing can be a form of thinking through our experiences and observations, arriving at surprising discoveries and insights along the way. In a way, your writing gives you the chance to encounter parts of yourself that you’re forced to ignore in the service of getting through the more superficial demands of everyday, the busy rabbit part of our brain sending us here and there so we won’t be late and we’ll get dinner on the table and remember our mother’s birthday. But there’s so much more to the mind than scheduling.
Getting to other parts of your mind takes work, though, and not just the kind of work we associate with things like flogging and toiling. It’s more like the kind of work you need to bring to a relationship, because you’re building a relationship to your deeper self and the world around you when you engage in the act of writing. And just as our closest relationships challenge us to see ourselves in new and deeper ways, you and your writing will only flourish when you figure out how to navigate through rocky patches that arise between you. And just as berating our loved ones doesn’t help to improve the relationships we have with them — even when they’re at their most frustrating – your writing won’t really respond if you only respond with rage, self-loathing, and/or despair when it won’t bow to your will.
Oftentimes, rereading my drafts still makes my hackles rise and/or triggers my gag reflex. But if I go with those reactions, I usually just get stuck. If I can manage instead to take a step back and try to see what the writing is doing – instead of focusing on what it isn’t doing – if I listen and notice without imposing my expectations on it, something almost always releases. Maybe a scene isn’t working because the particular intimacy I wanted for those characters has evolved into something else (if I’m lucky, maybe their relationship has developed new complications and depth). Maybe a dialogue is flat because I’ve already decided how I want it to end, or I’m overwriting it, not allowing the characters’ voices speak for themselves. Or maybe a kernel of emotional truth I didn’t even know was there has begun to blossom, and if I cultivate it well enough, I might wind up taking the story in a direction that is much more powerful and interesting than the “reason” why I decide to write in the first place.
Overall, the willingness to learn from the writing even when it’s not going well requires that we trust in more than the final product. It means we trust in what the process can show us along the way, to see it as a relationship that benefits from open-mindedness, patience, and a true desire to grow. So as temporarily satisfying as it might be to pitch a fit and go around slamming doors when your manuscript isn’t doing what you want, your writing will go so much further if you can take a minute to just listen to it. I know this is maybe not the advice you want to hear, but since when are relationships easy? Especially the ones most worth having?