One of the great frustrations any artist faces is measuring progress. As if it weren’t hard enough to enter into work that is, by its very nature, inventive, and therefore not designed to live up to any clear benchmarks, more often than not, the effort we put into our work is not neatly reflected in our results. We might spend days on a single moment on a single page, or bang out an entire chapter in a few hours.
Unfortunately, because most of us with at least a tenuous hold on sanity rely on logic, we tend to believe that our most productive days are the ones when we produce the most material. Superficially, this logic is sound, but on a deeper level, it’s woefully misleading. The trouble with measuring a writer’s progress against what she produces on any given day is that so much of the heavy lifting, creatively speaking, occurs long before the words line up on the page in neat and pleasant order.
This has never been more evident to me than now, when I’m a few years in to writing my first historical novel about a subject that is virtually nonexistent in fiction but widely covered in scholarship. Since I’m an incurably dutiful student, I haven’t wanted to proceed with my own take on these issues until I understand what’s already been said, which means that I’ve spend the better part of three years wandering through a forest of literature so thick there have been times I’ve felt sure that a wolf passing by to swallow me whole would be a far more merciful end than finding my way out. And now that I’ve begun to write the book itself in earnest, that same, dutiful student in me is wringing her hands when confronted with the amount of words I’ve read vs. the amount of words I’ve written. It is more than a little easy to feel overwhelmed.
But thankfully, this isn’t my first expedition into the wilderness, and as judgey and frustrated as I could be with my evident progress and the looming future, I’m honestly never been more excited about a project. Because amidst all these private cares and solitary work, I’ve never been more engaged with a challenge. Although I’ve spent actual weeks without producing a single word, what I’ve learned and tangled over and resolved during that time represents far more progress than what I might have done if I panicked, sat down, and just punched out a daily quota.
And while this might not be true for everybody, I think far more writers do far more work before they put words to a page than we ever allow for. Writing, after all, represents new ways of thinking, and this is not achieved simply by sitting down with a cup of tea and waiting for the must to show up. It requires wrassling with everything you know to discover something you don’t, and then it requires you sifting through everything you’ve ever expressed to discover something you haven’t. Much of this shaping takes place with language as the clay, but a great deal of it must also unfold while mulling and considering and debating and wondering, if not walking and sketching and mapping and listening.
The bottom line is that if you’re doing your subject justice, you won’t see words produced in lock step with the work you’ve done. What you will see is much more difficult to pinpoint, but much more pervasive. More than anything, it’s really a progression of learning, marked not by what you can show that you know, but how far you’ve come in stretching your own thinking.
So instead of worrying about how much you’ve produced, ask yourself how much you’ve persisted. Perhaps you’ve only got 100 words down for that 100,000 word saga you envision, but how much time and thought do those 100 words represent? And, if you eventually decide that you’d rather replace them with a different 100 words, not because you’re tearing yourself to shreds, but because you’ve considered them and moved on, consider how much ground you’ve gained in the process. If you honor and respect what you know you’ve done, rather than what you can point to, your writing, and everything it produces, will only be stronger.
Art: Cool Growth, Albert Koetsier
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