Dorothy Parker, American author and poet (1893 – 1967), once said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
Of course, if you want to be a writer, you don’t know this going into it. You have no idea your first draft will be the most appalling thing you’ve ever written, or that there is any possibility for it to ever get better.
You read books by your favorite authors—Laurie Halse Anderson, Sara Zarr, Rachel Cohn, and yes, Sarah Dessen—and your misery only deepens. How can your story, which has spiraled into too many characters, a plot that can only be improved with a sharp pair of scissors, and a miasma of senseless internal dialogue, ever hope to reach such heights?
You imagine these authors waking up with huge smiles on their faces as their subconscious minds dictate the next work. They can eat chocolate without guilt and even find time to shower and occasionally exercise. They couldn’t possibly suffer from isolation, horrendously bad writing, or the paralysis of self-doubt. Could they?
I had fallen into this particular pit of despair when writing the first draft of my first novel (which I’ve since decided is one of the hardest things a person can willfully do), when Sarah Dessen saved me—completely unbeknownst to her. She wrote a blog back then, “Writing the novel (or, falling in love, sort of)”, in which she said this:
Eventually, though, you hit that last third, and things go south, big time. This always seems to happen to me in January or February, which just makes it worse. Suddenly, there’s just too much: too many characters, too many subplots, too many words. You still have miles to go, which is bad enough, but to make matters worse you already hate everyone and everything in your story. You can’t believe you ever began this, you must have been demented, and now you’re going to have to throw the whole thing out and start over, the very thought of which makes your brain hurt, as if it is about to explode.
Uh-oh. But then she said this:
You just have to get there, to that dark, dark spot, to start climbing towards the light again. And if you’re lucky–and by this point, you deserve some luck, right?–once you start, the pace picks up and things start falling into place. The first part of that last hundred pages is agony. But the second can be magical, as you race towards the finish, almost giddy with relief. Suddenly, you remember everything you loved about this book at the beginning, how much you care about your characters, how cool that metaphor really is. It’s like only by going through the very worst with a book–or a person, to keep up the analogy–can you get to the best.
Was it possible that our experience was universal, and that she had already charted a way out?
Through, baby. The only way out is through.
And strangely, I found it comforting to know that this amazing author, who has written about shame and love and heartache and everything important in the whole scheme of things, faced doubt and conquered it and wrote through the bad stuff to come out the other side with meaningful, beautiful words.
I just finished the first draft of my second novel, and she’s right—I did forget the messy, frustrating joy of it. Well, I remembered the joy, and that the darkness was part of the light. Though truthfully, the self-doubt was more of a whisper this time than a debilitating roar. I found myself going back to Sarah’s post and being encouraged again that at heart, this author who I admire and have never met, and I have so much in common.
Tomorrow – Kristi from The Story Siren.