I broke a writer’s cardinal rule: I talked about a work in progress.
My friend Carol asked what I’ll work on, now that my first book is published. Immediately She realized her mistake. “Stop! Nevermind!” she said, waving her hands. “Forget I asked. I know writers aren’t supposed to discuss works in progress.”
But I’ve never liked this about writers. Writers are notorious for being supremely guarded about their work.
This was a phenomena I first observed in college, where it was our job to talk about current works. Students who were prodded to discuss their piece would simply demure, citing some seal of freshness, some finite magic in their story, and talking about it, or even offering a description before it was completely complete (and a story was never completely complete) was akin to removing the cap from a bottle of beer. The tale’s effervescence was released—out there—not just to our classroom, it was lost to a literary ether where some unknowable community of thieves and plagiarists were waiting to slurp up orphaned stories.
Where this would leave the foolish authors who let their story slip was unclear. They’d still have their story, but most certainly it would be reduced to a shell, robbed of its spirit, the leavings of which resembled little more than a mismatched pile of cliches and soggy, overly-obvious daddy issues.
At first I thought this was just a clever excuse for neglected or procrastinated homework. While that may be true, I couldn’t help noticing a trend that indicated otherwise, as loose lips were repeatedly blamed for lousy stories and lousy writing.
It was a rationale that was hard to watch—the delusional acrobatics writers happily preferred in order to sidestep an honest consideration of what led to their story’s demise. This, I thought, was a pity, since an autopsy usually revealed their story had been done-in by something much easier to define, something much more workable than the nebulous treachery of black magic. That is—a lack of elbow grease.
Plain as day, nobody cared much for the work.
And that’s fair. I get that. I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised to discover we are creatures beset by laziness. So many stories suffer from a spectrum of laziness, whether that’s a mere lack of work ethic, or the larger, far more ominous blockade—the inability to retool an ego impervious to editorial advice.
It is much more fun (and easier) to imagine we’re hot stuff and the world is just dying to read our stories. There’s a queue of publishers wringing their hands as this or that staggering work of genius edges its way closer to publication.
So, what happens when the world doesn’t come clamoring for a finished work? The tendency, at least in college, was to double-down on the fantasy and contribute a story’s failure, again, to anything besides laziness. Usually it was the audience that was too dumb to grasp a story or an author’s greatness. You think I’m lying, but I’ve actually heard writers say, with a straight face, their writing was ‘ahead of their time.’
What then, explains for the profound fatigue of writers?
My best guess is, though it seems silly, writers were promised romance. We were tricked into thinking writing meant breathless, unapologetic nights and wild days unencumbered by steril, soul-crushing jobs. Simply calling yourself a writer granted your elite membership to some mantle of greatness. These are all obvious untruths. Except writers, it would seem, have a disproportionately difficult time reaching that conclusion: writing is actually boring, unsexy and humiliating work.
I happily told my friend what I’m working on. I told her I’m working on a story I hate. I told her it is fitting it was written during the presidency of Donald Trump, since it is a story that applauds nihilism. Its humor is overly dark, to the point of not being funny any more. It’s characters, while complex and beautiful are beset by immaturities and cruelties that are seemingly insurmountable. Somewhere in there, an entire community collectively loses it’s mind and persecutes a handful of innocents in a futile attempt to bury an unburyable list of atrocities in which everyone (this being a small town) is somehow implicated.
I spoke at length about my horrible story. I admitted to my fear it may not age very well since I believe writing that aims to capture the zeitgeist, (especially during a nationwide lapse in dignity and brotherhood) while compelling and beautiful, is also fleeting and temporary. Once the ugly political storm breaks, the text will read much differently, overly sour and mysteriously dreary.
We had a good discussion about my story and, hey-presto, what do you know? The story is still there! It’s still just as huge and looming in all its grotesque horribleness as it was before I let it out of the bag. This, I believe, goes to show—nothing is killed by ruminating a story’s elements that didn’t already need a good killing in the first place. I’ll say that again, for emphasis—it should be a rule: if your story can’t cop to an objective back-and-forth then it was probably a lousy story. Good riddance, and no love lost.
It seems silly to suggest a story can be robbed of its interestingness. It would indicate there’s some kind of voodoo inhabiting the arc. Isn’t that asking a lot of a story? That it should just be magical, rather than be made magical?
There is nothing magical about writing.
The only people who purport writing is a mystical process are other writers who, either by an inferiority complex or competitiveness, aim to narrow the field and elevate their craft beyond the reaches of practical and proletariat work. They want you to believe writing is a God-given something regular people can only dream of, if only we were talented enough, or smart enough, or artful enough.
So if you have a story to tell, and you’re lucky enough for someone willing to sit through the rough, early version, then you’d better goddamn pipe up. And quick. And be prepared for the chance your special someone might not be so impressed. They might even straight-up dislike your story. And I get that. I understand why that would seem an unsavory, possibly masochistic endeavor. Humiliation is a very potent deterrent. But, get over yourself. Writing isn’t about being strong, it’s about being vulnerable.
What changed, after I discussed my my story with Carol? Not much, the story is mostly the same. But she did me a huge favor in pointing out an obvious pitfall—she reminded me to keep an eye on how easily the story could slip into a work of commentary—to beware the story is still a story. If it is to be timeless, it will need to work harder than to lean on the zeitgeist to explain away the motives and actions of it’s comically cruel inhabitants. The zeitgeist, she explained, is a common crutch. And once the crutch is kicked away…
So that’s a bit of good news, my story didn’t fall apart in discussion. The opposite, in fact, since objective (not to mention, free) suggestions are an invaluable resource. Had I chastised her for prying I might’ve missed that opportunity, or at least I would have wasted a great deal of time coming to the conclusion on my own.
So there’s that word again: work.
I suppose it’s time to return to the beginning, the first chapter, and work harder.