Friday, April 6, 2007

This Writer's Life . . .

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in college, I came to realize that every semester I went through a certain pattern. The first few days of class, I'd look over the syllabus and feel excited and even a little smug. This will be great, I'd think. Hard, but great. I'm smart. A 20 page essay analyzing the whatever in Chaucer's pilgrimage? Cool! (Yes, I was an English major.) 10 novels in 11 weeks? Fabulous! I love to read and I've been waiting to dive into Conrad, Eliot and the Brontes. A few weeks in and my spirits would have deflated. I'd be tired. It was freezing cold (I went to University of Wisconsin) with more snow forecast. Who was I kidding, I'd fret. I can't do this. I'm not that bright. No one can do this. These professors are fiends. My parents will be so disappointed. I'd slog through these gray days, drinking gallons of cinnamon or raspberry tea and eating cinnamon toast before I'd crawl under my quilt for an afternoon nap. Then, miraculously, the clouds would break and I'd start writing. I'd take long walks thinking about the book in question and a thesis would just come to me--like magic. I'd write the essay and read it over. Huh, I'd think. It's pretty good. Maybe I will pass the class. Then I'd tackle the next assignment. And I'd feel smart again.

Near the end of my sophomore year, I finally noticed that this was my pattern--so the next time I felt hopelessly on the verge of flunking out, I was able to step back from the ledge and know that this too, would pass (as would I).

What is it that they say about patterns? Maybe we ought to pay attention to them? Learn from them?

I now find myself in similar straits when I'm working on a novel. First, I get an idea and, whoo-ee, it's fantastic. Better than ever. Oh, baby, I can do this. I think about it all the time, I can't wait to dive in and write the masterpiece. So, I start, and I love it. The characters are right out there waiting for me to discover all their facets. They're in my head chatting away with me and that first chapter just rolls out onto the paper. I read it to my husband and he smiles. "It's good," he says. I'm happy, the laundry's getting done and I even find time to make dessert. And then. Then, I'm muddling around the 15,000 word mark. I read over the last few pages and I think, Good Lord, this is rot. I can't send this to anyone. I grumble around the house and holler at the dog. I apologize to my husband for having nothing to read to him. I still sit down to write every morning, but I find I'm writing "Ick" in the margins every few pages. I take a walk. I cook. Maybe clean out a closet or some drawers. And then, the characters start talking to me again. Before I know it I'm at the 25,000 word mark and there's no turning back. And I reread those pages I'd marked "Ick" and find that they're either pretty good--or I know how to fix them. I believe in the characters again, and, perhaps more importantly, they believe in me.

So, with writing, like just about anything else in my life, I know I have to stick with it, muddle through the cloudy days, and find my rhythm (or let it find me).

So, what patterns do you see in your own lives?


Larramie said...

One pattern is obvious at the moment. It's a holiday weekend and we're scattered to the wind. ;o)

Happy Easter to you, Judy!

Therese said...

I expect that recognizing these sorts of patterns helps a lot when one of those moments/days/weeks comes around!

One of my patterns seems to be always make more popcorn than I really need...and then eat it all anyway. :)

The Writers' Group said...

My pattern is exactly the same as yours. Strangely, I even comfort myself with "this too shall pass." Kismet, I think


Ghost Girl said...

I love your post, Judy! I can so relate to your experience in college. I, too, ossilated between exhilerated optimism and pure, unadulterated, self-loathing. Especially in graduate school. And I go through the same things with my writing.

It really hits hard when I attend a good conference and see the fantastic things that other writers are doing. "I can't write like that!" I think to myself. "How did they ever let me in the door?" But after a while, I lose myself in my story again and realize that it is just as much a living, breathing creature as all those wonderful books I read off the shelf. It's just still in its infancy, and like a good mother, I have to nurture it and give it room to grow...and to stumble and pick itself up again.

Thanks for the affirmation!

Mary Ann

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

We all have our patterns, don't we? For me, one of the tricks is keeping things in perspective--just like you, Mary Ann, I think most writers (at least me!) have those feelings of being an imposter sometimes--but when I admit it I find everyone else feels the same way. That's why we need to stick together and encourage each other. And that way we can all enjoy Therese's popcorn!