Monday, March 7, 2016

On Despair and the Writing Process, by Anne Nesbet

As it happens, I am someone who enjoys every one of the pleasant, fulfilling, creatively satisfying stages of writing a novel:

--the brainstorming and researching and worldbuilding that set the stage for the story;
--the plotting and outlining that give that story its shape;


--the thrill of writing the first draft;
--the careful process of revising and revising again and revising yet a third time and then revising some more.

I really do love it all.


And yet, at some point during each of these pleasant, fulfilling, creatively satisfying stages in the writing process, I experience something that isn't pleasant at all:

I feel despair.


That's a very strong word, I know, but I'm afraid it's accurate. The despair comes in various flavors:

1. "Nothing will come of this. Nothing."

2. "This is bad. I've lost my magic touch. I will never write anything good again."

and 3. "No one will ever like anything I write."

Recently I have been thinking about these familiar old despairing thoughts, about where they come from and why they well up so predictably, like some clockwork geyser of misery, when I'm working on a new story.

Let's take #1: Nothing will come of this. This is the deepest, the broadest, and the hardest to avoid of all the Dark Thoughts. It's also a very sneaky Dark Thought, because depending on how you look at things, it is "true": look far enough ahead, and nothing comes of anything. Human beings are mortal. Books vanish. In 7.6 billion years, the sun will grow so large that it swallows the earth.

Seen in that light (the light of the catastrophically greedy future sun), it is quite true that any one middle-grade novel written in 2016 or 2017 is not going to amount to much. :)

The problem here is one of choosing the wrong frame of reference. The lifespan of the sun? WRONG FRAME. Too big.

100 years? Almost certainly the wrong frame again. Still too big.

Finishing this novel? When you're at the start of writing a first draft, even the relatively minor slip into thinking of the book as a whole can bring on despair. A novel is a big project. How can anyone expect herself to write twenty-five whole chapters? Hundreds of pages? All those thousands and thousands of words? Once again: WRONG FRAME. For now, just focus on chapter one, and let chapter twenty-two take care of itself when its time comes.

Despair simply thrives on Wrong Frames of Reference. But if we narrow our frame, everything seems more manageable: this chapter, this page, this minute, this sentence.

Since everything's blooming on my street this week, I have been thinking about Robert Frost's wonderful poem, "A Prayer in Spring," which is all about frames of reference. Here's how it begins:

            Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
            And give us not to think so far away
            As the uncertain harvest; keep us here,
            All simply in the springing of the year.

All harvests are uncertain, yes. But that doesn't mean the flowers today amount to nothing!


So what about that second flavor of despair? "This is bad! I've lost my magic touch! I'll never write anything good ever again."

It's a terrible feeling. But really, was it "magic" that wrote your books in the past? Really? Wasn't work involved? Didn't you say you did umpteen revisions before you and the editor were satisfied?  No, no: it's persistence that counts, not magic.

And #3, about nobody liking the book once it's written. Well, we don't control that, do we? That's out of our hands. Plus it's almost certain that SOMEONE somewhere sometime will like this story. You'll never hear from that kid who in some future year will happen on your book at the school library and read it and feel it was a message in a bottle meant for him or her. You'll never know that connection happened. But I tell you: it will happen!

Hmm. Wouldn't it be nice if we could logic our way out of despair? It doesn't seem to work that way, however.

Despite my deploying all this nice logic--despite all my attempts to be reasonable--I haven't banished despair from my writing process. It still shows up, every single time.

What I do now that is different, and that seems to help, is to recognize it and name it when it comes lumbering into my head:

"Ah, here we go! This is that same old Despair again! The one that seems to be a necessary part of the process!"

I try to remember that despair has appeared at some point during every single writing project. Every single one! 

And every single time, I have gotten through it somehow: the new plot idea that links A and B appears; the fifth version of the beginning isn't quite as terrible as the previous four. Something starts to work again. The writing takes off. I get so caught up in this present chapter that I forget to worry about the future. I am happy again.

I hope that despair doesn't visit you when you write, but I suspect it may. Next time it comes around, see if it helps to nod in its direction, to give it a name:

Oh, right! THIS is just the Despair-that-is-a-necessary-part-of-the-process!
(and then you can check it off your to-do list: Despair? Done!)

28 comments:

  1. Anne - thank you for ths! I really experienced this last year while writing a(now only partially completed) YA novel. I had to work through the process, and when it began on my current WIP, I didn't fight it, but I also practised the steps you outline above - I.e. I applied perspective - and I walked, walked, walked. Thank you for such a great post!

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    1. Oh, yes: walking is so important and so helpful! Walking in the world outside--where the trees and flowers and squirrels and kids on tricycles are--somehow tricks even us despairing worriers into living in the moment (for a moment). It heals our wounded frames of reference.
      I wish you ALL GOOD LUCK with your current project and the waiting YA!

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  2. This is so, so true! And every time Despair visits, he tries to convince me that it's different this time. This time, he means it. "Nothing will come of this. You will never write anything as good as what you wrote before. You are finished."

    I'm going to try putting him on my To-Do list and see if that diminishes his power! I'll put him between "clean the bathroom" and "scoop out the litter box" and see how scary he is then!

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    1. Dianne, it's amazing to me how this Despair character can seem so uniquely convincing and powerful--while using exactly the same old clichés on all of us.
      I really do tell my students to add Despair (About Writing) to their writing to-do lists. And it does help me to have done so, even though of course I'm still worried each time that, as you put it, "this time, he means it!" Good luck to you! And maybe you can really triumph and get Despair to clean out the litter box for you, before he slumps away out of your life....

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  3. Thank you. Despair and fear are a huge part of my process. No fun, but something I'm trying to figure out how to live with. Sharing!

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    1. Luckily for all of us, you manage to write some beautiful books despite the despair! I hope the next time Despair visits, you are able to send him along on his way with a little less agony.... Good luck, Caroline!

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  4. I especially like the way you frame, "Nothing will come of this." In a way, this is the blackest part of the pep talk -- what does anything mean at all? But that's why it's most true. Thanks for this.

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    1. That's the heart of the matter for me: learning to live with the "nothing will come of this" thoughts, and still moving forward, still doing what I can to make each moment/each page meaningful. The tightrope walker keeps her focus on the rope and on her next step--not on all the emptiness all around! Wishing you the very best, Kell!

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  5. I happened to be in a bout of this very despair when, as a way to avoid facing my manuscript, I read your post. Thank you, Anne. I have to get back to work now.

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    1. I hope your work goes well today; I hope the next few sentences sing!

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  6. I think you'll have a lot of writers sagely nodding their heads this morning reading this. Thanks for writing so eloquently about the despairing part of the process that so often rears on its hind legs, sticking out its forked tongue.

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  7. The scariest thing about despair is how reasonable and rational it sounds when it's talking. If it showed us that forked tongue, we'd be quicker to recognize it as an impostor! Wishing you a productive and relatively despair-free week!

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  8. You just have to keep writing at the end of the day.

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    1. So true! Keeping going is the not-so-secret secret. But sometimes it's very hard....

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  9. "Despair simply thrives on Wrong Frames of Reference."

    Brilliant. AS is the rest of the piece. Thank you, Ann.

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    1. Well, I have a long history of struggling with those Wrong Frames of Reference, of course: I remember sobbing bitterly when I learned (at about age 6?) that the earth was doomed! I was devastated! I still remember quite vividly the room I was in (at a friend's house) when I heard the bad news....

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  10. So wise and so true. Thank you.

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    1. (Ah, wouldn't it be lovely if wisdom were less ephemeral? Let's see how I do when the next revision letter arrives!)

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  11. Thank you for this. You have helped “heal” my "wounded frame of reference". As usual you manage to translate your insightfulness into messages accessible to even the most lost amongst us. I now return to the battle of life with pen & To Do list ready!

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    1. Emma, I wish you strength and a flowing pen and a shrinking To Do list! You can do this thing!

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    1. Thank you for visiting Mayhemland!

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  13. You just hit this on the head for me, Anne. The despair. Sounds so strange, especially when a person's already written a full manuscript or/and has books out there. But it's sooooo true. I am actually drowning in it, right now. I've never written a sequel, let alone a series. But that's what I'm doing - writing my first book II - and it's gotten under my skin. I question and doubt everything I'm writing and developing. Your advice about taking it one chapter at a time is good. I'm going to try that. Thx!

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    1. Oh, sequels are famous for causing despair! Wishing you SO much luck as you build this mighty fortress pebble by pebble!

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  14. Thank you for this. Last night, I finished a read through of my first novel since I finished it for NaNoWriMo 2015. Mostly negative thoughts, like the ones you addressed, have been running through my head about my first stab at MG. Your words encourage me to fight through the despair and focus on small goals!

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    1. Reading through a NaNoWriMo draft takes a great deal of courage--I know this from experience. All power to you!
      And sometimes it's almost better not to FIGHT despair but to smile at it and wave: "Hey, I see you sneaking in there! Can't let you move in right now, so keep moving on...." Small goals help. Even teeny-tiny goals, if necessary. Good luck, good luck!

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  15. Thank you so so much for this post. I have been battling despair for the last few months. I have also been isolated from other writers for the last few months. Definitely a connection. This weekend I reconnected and got reinvigorated. I found that old hope again. And then I found your wise words.

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    1. I hope you will find a community to lift you up when things get tough--and of course I also hope things get less tough! Wishing you all the best as your writing gets itself rolling again.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!