I quit my job to write a novel. And I’m not a big risk taker. If I do something, I have a plan and try to anticipate all the roadblocks. Even as I outlined the novel during the final weeks of employment, I was already mentally preparing myself.
“There will be days when this seems completely idiotic. There will be days when it seems like I can’t pull it off. Those thoughts will come no matter what, but I don’t have to believe them.” — Me to myself
It’s not entirely different from battling depression. You have to remind yourself that your brain lies to you. You have to figure out when to not listen.
But writing the first draft of my novel was, if anything, a bit easier than I expected. Keep in mind that I worked hard to keep myself on track. I hit my word goal every day. I kept writing when all I could think was, “This scene is trash.” But the process of writing that first draft was surprisingly devoid of catastrophic doubt and panic.
And when I finished the draft, it was exciting. But it was also a little scary. Because in the back of mind, even as I drank my celebratory beer, I knew that there was so much more to come.
I read and revised my manuscript several times. And then tentatively, fearfully, I reached out to a couple of writer/editor friends to read it and give me notes (huge shout out to Gary and Terri). In the meantime, I worked on finding freelance gigs and applying to jobs.
Then my readers gave me their feedback.
Then I crawled under my bed and wished for sweet death.
Then I read the feedback.
Then I burrowed under the floorboards and thought about how death was too good for me.
Disappointing, But Not Surprising
The biggest problems with my manuscript weren’t a huge surprise. I know from my own writing and my hobby of doing narrative improv comedy that I tend to create bland main characters. I know that I sometimes put realism and subtlety above entertainment and emotional punch. And I know I need to fix these things for my novel to be a success (however you choose to define that).
The truth is simple: my novel needs a lot of work. The process is nowhere near over. I need to go through every page to make it better.
And I’m scared. I’m really scared that I wasted my time, that the idea was stupid to begin with, that I’m missing some fundamental skill or quality that makes a good storyteller. I’m afraid that I will never make a career out of my passion.
I’m afraid that this novel will never be what I want it to be, that even at its best it will be cringeworthy. Even if I can continue writing novels and make a living from it, I will wish I’d never let this manuscript see the light of day.
So I could scrap the whole thing and never reveal the gaping chasm between my ambitions and my abilities. Or I can throw myself back into it and hope it gets less embarrassing. I’m going to try to do that.
Except I’ll now be doing it with a full-time job (as most people do). I’ll be starting in a new position in January because…you know, money.
I Take Comfort In…
When you make the choice to do something you know is going to be difficult and frustrating and may never work out the way you want, it helps to have a few comforting thoughts or ideas to return to. Sort of like strapping pillows to your feet before walking over hot coals.
Here are a few of the ideas and words of advice that I’ve been clinging as I try to wrap my brain around how much work there is left to do.
The Gap by Ira Glass
It almost makes you feel good about being intensely disappointed with your own work.
This video of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
You should totally watch the whole thing, but essentially: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and writers gotta fail.
“Well, my novel’s not going to get any worse…”
I’m not sure where I picked this idea up, but it’s strangely comforting.
Back on the Road
It’s kind of like I’m on a cross-country drive and I just finished the first leg, from San Diego to Tucson. I’m stoked to stop and get gas and coffee. There’s a momentary sense of accomplishment. But then I fire up the GPS again and look at just how far I still have to do.
And my brain chimes in,
“You’ll never make it.”
“You’re a bad driver and everyone on the road hates you.”
“This is stupid. You should have flown.”
Shut up, brain. There are no flights to where I’m going.