So, the online Creative Writing course I signed up for right before the apocalypse-that-wasn’t started last week. It’s an interesting experience, taking an online class. Though there is a system and certain expectations, I can log in as my schedule allows and post when I have time. The other students are eager and enthusiastic and, in general, a good deal older. That last distinguishing fact means that they seem to have a a good grasp of their abilities, goals, confidence. And they write!
We are reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird as a class–no hardship, since this is one of my favorite books and never fails to be inspiring and reassuring. One of the most re-readable parts is about the writer and self-doubt:
Typically you’ll try to comfort yourself by thinking about the day’s work–the day’s excrementitious work. You may experience a jittery form of existential dread, considering the absolute meaninglessness of life and the fact that no one has ever really loved you; you may find yourself consumed with a free-floating shame, and a hopelessness about your work, and the realization that you will have to throw out everything you’ve done so far and start from scratch. But you will not be able to do so. Because you suddenly understand that you are completely riddled with cancer.
Many of [my students] have been told over the years that they are quite good, and they want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout–the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia.
The class’s first writing assignment was due today and of course, I decided at midnight to completely rework the story I had mostly finished. Part of what makes midnight the witching hour is that at that time, horrible, deformed, delusional ideas seem like good ones. Your common sense is infiltrated by insidious what-ifs that have all the charm of a used car salesman and the diabolical temptation of a second cookie. When I had a roommate, I could occasionally be talked out of creatively suicidal actions like last-minute writing makeovers. Left to my own devices and stuck in my own brain bog, I become tangled in good intentions and panic.
It doesn’t help that I’ve had one successful eleventh hour idea. The night before my senior thesis presentation, the world aligned, the matrix grid decoded itself, and I saw a way to organize my speech to be more thoughtful, clear, and engaging. It was a crazy plan–why not just go with the perfectly fine version I had prepared? But no, never! Perfection flirted with me (the saucy minx) and I had to pursue it.
The final copy of my speech was better. Was it worth the agony? Yes. Well, probably. But the horrible puce lining was that after this one success story, late night ideas are harder to suppress. It’s like when someone fixes a couple up and it happens that the two click and make a nice go of it. It could have been a fluke or a lucky guess, but it doesn’t matter–now, that matchmaker will try pairing people off like a busybody Noah.
So I started over last night, trying to approach my idea from a different angle. (The first draft was round, and I wanted it sharp, if you know what I mean.) Then, I decided that some of the sentences or paragraphs from my first draft should be kept so I started copy-pasting. Then, I got confused about which version had which background. Had I copy-pasted a section on eating without ever mentioning that the characters were having dinner? Was a character talking, having a big dialogue-y moment, who was never introduced or explained? Had I cut out the scene that had been my inspiration in the first place?? Hysteria bubbled up around 1 am, my brain started twitching soon after.
I ended up wrestling my short story into something resembling a short story and turning it in (posting it) this morning. I wasn’t at all satisfied with it, and not just in the I’m-never-satisfied-with-my-writing sort of way. I knew I had botched up my naive attempt to make my draft better but I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to turn it in before I went crazy (okay, crazier). So I closed my eyes and clicked “post,” and then ran away from the computer.
Then, the responses started coming in. Well, okay, one response. Critiques are an essential part of the class and for that matter, a vital part of the writing process. That said, when I read my classmate’s comments I was like a raw collection of nerve endings, the Phantom of the Opera’s less stable sister, a woe-is-me maiden from the olden days–all rolled into one. “I know,” I thought. “It’s terrible. It’s not my best work. Yes, you’re right, it doesn’t flow. No, that part doesn’t make sense to me either. Yes. Yes. Of course. Yes. Stop! Stop reading! Don’t look at it! Avert your eyes! Save yourself!”
“The good news,” Anne Lamott says, “is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it. […] And often the right words do come, and you–well–‘write’ for a while; you put a lot of thoughts down on paper. But the bad news is that if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you’ve written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.”
The good news is that I completed my first assignment and received straightforward, constructive criticism. The bad news is that I sort of miss the elementary school days of gold stars and compliment sandwiches, and I’m still learning not to mutilate my first drafts.