Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Joy is the Writing by Joanna Roddy

Hermione Granger is my alter ego.

I was the girl always raising my hand in class. I was the one who always had the right answer. I may not have been a mini-McGonagall stickler for rules, but I did have the annoying habit of correcting people all the time. I even had frizzy hair. If only I could do magic too.

Thank goodness we all grow up, even Hermione, and I’ve learned to temper those tendencies with some self-control and found an outlet in teaching. Oh, and I bought a flat iron to tame the frizzle.

I would never advise anyone to dumb it down to make other people feel more comfortable (I'm talking to you, girls). But while cleverness and scholarship have their upsides, acting like a bossy know-it-all (It's wing-ARD-ium levi-O-sa) never helped anyone. And needing to always have the right answer has become the single biggest block to my creative life that I've had to overcome.

Just this month, I finished a major rewrite of my novel and I can say something about it that I've never been able to say before: I love my story. It needs editing and polishing, but it feels right in a way it's never felt before.

It’s taken me awhile to get here.

After college I had a shiny new writing degree, but when the time came to write for myself (and not for assignments), I was completely paralyzed. At first I applied to MFA programs, thinking an academic community would develop a writing life for me. And then I started to read everything about writing that I could get my hands on, especially other writers' chronicles of their own insecurities and the writing practices they developed to face them.

It seemed that I was not alone. Everyone feels this monolithic fear about their work. Everyone has to get their butt in the chair and work anyway. And if I could summarize my own fear in one sentence, it was this: I was afraid of not knowing what to write.

I was so comfortable always knowing the right answer that when it came time to create my own right answers, to speak from that solitary authority of the author, I was terrified that I would have nothing to say.

After some attempts at previous projects, which were all non-fiction or historical (safety in facts: research and given plots), I took a leap of faith and started writing a children's fantasy novel, which was what I had always wanted to do. And then I spent a year researching the heck out of relevant mythology and creating an elaborate back history. I was looking for safety in facts again. But little by little I began to let the facts prod my imagination into fictional possibilities.

It took me another three years to finish the novel. Every time I came to a point in the story I couldn't see past, I shut down. I stopped writing. I plotted like crazy. I didn't trust the work itself to show me the way forward.

I've read enough about writing to know that "inspiration likes to find you hard at work." So I would carve out the time, which became a concerted effort after becoming a mom. I showed up at the page. I wrote. But I kept blocking myself with fear. Whenever I didn't know what to write, even if it was just the next word, I escaped to wander the internet, or compare my plotline to the Hero's Journey, or read author blogs. The going was slow.

I have been editing my novel with my agent for the last couple of years and at the beginning I thought, Finally! I have an expert showing me what to do. Right answers in the form of editorial notes. But by the end of my first revision, I was sick of my story and sick of working on it. Right answers were a checklist and the work became a chore.

But something really great happened this time around the editing loop. It was a confluence of things, really, that somehow culminated in my own shift from head knowledge to heart.

First I finally read Stephen King's On Writing this fall. One of the things that really stayed with me is his emphasis on situation-driven writing over plotting. He says to set up an interesting situation and the rest will follow. He also says, "And if you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds creepy if you haven't actually experienced it, but it's terrific fun when it happens." I thought, Darn it, I want that to happen to me!

And then I took a 3-day solo writing retreat and I forced myself to write all day, every day. No internet, no people, no activities, just word count goals and lots of chocolate. And something started to happen. I let myself discover the scenes as they unfolded. They took me unexpected places, introduced unexpected characters. It was thrilling!

An author I really love published the final book in her trilogy last month and as I read some interviews she gave about it, I was struck by the realization that her complex, multi-layered series came together as she was writing it. And when you read her work, it's obvious: the writing itself is the pleasure. It's a feast of words. And yet, she was able to create a cohesive, successful whole by trusting and listening to the work as it unfolded.

And that was when the light bulb went off. This thing I've always known cognitively--writing is about writing--sunk into my gut.

Trust the work.
Let it show you the way forward.
Just get your butt in the chair and write.

I'm writing with less fear and a lot more joy, coming to the page excited to see what may unfold instead of terrified that I don't have the right answer.

Imagination by N.C. Wyeth

Writing is a lot more like reading a good book than engineering.

It's the difference between taking a test and going on an adventure. And not only am I thrilled to now know the difference between the two, I feel like I hit the jackpot because the adventure, which is a lot more fun, is the path to a writer's best work. Aren't we lucky?

So, what is your biggest fear when you write? Do you struggle with blocking yourself or needing to have a detailed plan? How have you overcome that? And what are some unexpected discoveries you've made about your project while you were writing it? 


  1. I'm glad "On Writing" helped you, Joanna.

    I have to say the words "Butt in Chair" did more harm than good to my sanity.

    That's me, though, as I push myself too hard and leads me to burnout for months on end, but I'm glad you found solace with S. King's thoughts on writing. It only made me feel guilt.

    I always struggle with ambition versus skill.

    The common phrase "Enjoy the journey" has become tear-inducing for me, and it's hard explain without sounding like a self-pity freak.

    I often fear I'm a fake because I don't always feel like my skill matches my passion.

    It's HARD to find "Joy" in the writing when my weaknesses ruin what I'm trying to do, and I think this is because I don't move on from project to project easily.

    I still make tense errors that unless someone tells I wouldn't find even months later. That's something I've gone through with a recent project.

    For me my greatest fear is this-

    Every book will take YEARS!

    Sometimes I wish I wasn't so aware of my mortality.

    Since I'm not good at (magazine-friendly) short stories, I focus on novels, and I feel like I still can't find any kind of reliable process.

    1. Taurean, the most freeing advice I've ever gotten was "Learn to write this book." For me, each book needs a different approach. I'm learning to let go and try to let the work show me the way.

      Also, it takes me time to move from one book to another. It's like moving from another world. It takes some adjustment.

    2. Thanks for being so honest, Taurean.

      And Caroline: good advice.

    3. Taurean, thanks for your sincere response. I completely agree with you that "butt in the chair" mantra can be harmful. I know in the past it has made me feel inadequate. Right now, the "chair" seems more like my favorite armchair and the work feels like a new book I'm dying to read. It's exciting, but I know it's taken me a long time to get there. I think part of the reason is what Caroline said above. I'm learning my own process. I wish you breakthrough with yours.

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    5. Thanks for replying, Joanna, I'm glad I'm not the only writer
      who understands this frustration and I that I say them not to whine, just to be honest.

      Being honest with your peers is just as important as being honest with the readers you long to have.

      As positive as I strive to be, sometimes doubts and frustrations set in, not just about getting/staying published, but just having that next book in you, that's one of my greatest struggles this year.

      I think it can be just as empowering for authors to know those farther than them to share their doubts and frustrations on occasion, as it is to not let the challenges stall you indefinitely, showing vulnerability isn't weakness, it's reminding writers and readers we're no less human than they are, being shouldn't mean we have to constantly maintain detached from ALL negative feelings and thoughts at ALL TIMES!

      Some careers sadly require that. I'm glad this doesn't have to be one of them.

      Just because I've had lows doesn't mean I'm not grateful for the (non-drug induced!) highs.

  2. I always jump in with a situation and let the characters tell me what's really going on. My biggest fear is trusting that I'll see what needs done when it comes to revising; therefore, I have a lot of first drafts waiting for the dust cloth. :-)
    Great post.

    1. Isn't it amazing how we all have different hot buttons? Thanks for sharing yours. Maybe getting an insightful reader's second pair of eyes on your manuscripts would help. I have found it to be invaluable. Best of luck with your journey forward.

  3. YES! YES! YES! (Ahem, all this excitement for "the joy is the writing.")
    Wonderful first post, Joanna. Welcome to the Mayhem!

  4. Fear definitely gets in my way. That's what kept me from writing a novel for years -- and maybe it wasn't terrible in that case, because the novel ideas I had were terrible! But now there is a story I want to tell that I've been afraid to write because I don't think I can do it well enough. I keep pushing that project along in the queue and I hope I get there.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Kell. It's great that you still want to challenge yourself after accomplishing as much as you have with your writing. If the project ever comes up in the queue, I'd love to hear more about it.

  5. Great post, Joanna! My wife who is also a writer, just had that "I love my story" feel on her first novel, which she is revising. My own writing fears are spread pretty widely depending on what stage of a project I'm in. Right now, I'm in the middle of revisions for a novel due out in March and my current fear is: Will I have an idea that I connect with enough to want to write a new story. I've seen how much time and energy and devotion it takes to stay with a story. My favorite inspirational writer, Thich Nhat Hanh (The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life), suggests greeting your fear and making friends with it. I'll probably try that as a starting point and see what happens....

    1. I'll have to check that book out, Paul! No joke, I was just talking to a writer friend of mine this morning. She just finished her first novel and she completely believed that she only had one book in her, but, total surprise to her, she just started a new idea that I think is totally brilliant and a big change from what she just finished. I think there's something to the idea that stories are always looking for available midwives to help them out into the world. Something I always tell myself: if I have work to do for today, I'll let tomorrow worry about itself. Congrats on the upcoming novel!

  6. This is a really terrific post--I shared it on the Ambitious Enterprises Facebook page. I've been preaching the positivity of writing lately, so it's always a delight to see that concept appear. Joy vanquishes fear. It's not quite that simple, of course, but positive thinking goes a long way.

    I know a couple writers in my writer's group that would benefit a lot from this. They're both extraordinarily talented, but like so many of us, they get stuck on the idea that they're not good enough. But it's rarely not being good enough that actually prevents us from completing our work. It's not being confident enough, and not sticking with it.

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

    1. Harrison, I'm so glad you found this helpful! A local writer did a pitch clinic and Q&A with my writer's group years ago and she said something to the effect of, "If you keep writing and you're willing to learn, you'll eventually get published." Whether or not that's technically true, it was hugely encouraging. I think you're spot on that confidence and sticking with it make all the difference.

  7. Hooray for Hermione! And Stephen King!

    I LOVE the magic of this. I wouldn't have believed it until I experienced it while revising my first book over and over again. Even though I knew the story backward and forward I still got caught up in the fantasy and adventure.

    1. Right? No better feeling than that. Thanks, Marissa!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!