Post #3277: I do not have to be confident about it now

Often when I sit down to write I have no idea what I want to say before I start. Writing is one of the ways I discover what my subconscious is working on, and it’s through putting words to the page or screen that I formulate my opinions about the world much of the time. Truth is, I’m really a verbal thinker (talking helps me think through sticky problems), but in the absence of other people writing is the next best thing.

Because of this tendency to think and write at the same time (rather than planning out what I’m going to say), I delete a lot of what I write. Every remaining sentence is one I have tinkered with, re-written, and re-ordered innumerable times. It is a frustrating and slow process, and as I’ve aged, one I find hampered by brain fogs – a kind of internal weather subject to settling in when I least expect it (particularly when my B12 isn’t in check). Whenever I am struggling to get a good sentence on the page, I think about Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated poet of the early twentieth century who is said to have composed her perfect stanzas so thoroughly in her head before writing them down that they needed no editing. I only hate her a little bit for this – though I expect her famous mind for writing declined in middle age when she developed the morphine addiction that would contribute to her early death at 58.

In writing practice there is an often-discussed divide between the “pantser” and the “plotter”–the former being someone who flies by the seat of their pants and does little or no planning before sitting down to write, the latter being the opposite–someone who meticulously plans out their work before committing anything to the page. Apparently there is also a middle way known as “plantser” but I have never heard anyone identify themselves in this category.

I would very much like to be a plotter, as deep in my heart I do feel it’s most correct to sit down with a structure and an outline before one starts writing. However, I am just not that way, and it’s not for lack of trying. My friend Kyla identified my problem with plotting when I was attempting a novel during Nanowrimo some years back when she said “If you’ve worked out what you are going to write in some detail, the actual writing part becomes a bit pointless because you already know what is going to happen next.” This, I find to be as true with non-fiction as with fiction writing. If I’ve already worked the problem out in my mind, I’m ready to go onto the next thing, not elucidate more on the thing I’ve figured out. Of course there is always a lot of editing, but my outlining process happens in long-form writing. It’s time-consuming because there are a lot of dead-ends, but given my attempts to change my writing “personality” over the years, I’m not sure a pantser can become a plotter (and vice versa).

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about the logistics of writing a book. Over my adult life, this idea has come up several times, but I’ve always talked myself out of it fairly quickly. The closest I’ve come was the completion of Nanowrimo about a decade ago, from which I emerged with a terrible first draft of a novel at 65,000 words or so. I’ve never been interested in revisiting that project or fiction in general since, though it was a revealing process in many ways. I learned that 65,000 words in a month is 2100 words per day and that if one doesn’t self-edit too much, those words can be knocked out in as little as 90 minutes. I realized that the phenomena of characters making decisions against the author’s intent or plans is a real thing–characters do come to life in the subconscious in a way that gives them their own agency to redirect or drive narrative development. And ultimately, I understood that to turn out something book-length means putting oneself in service to the writing above all else for at least a specified period of most days.

In my usual nod to plotting, I’ve attempted some thoughts towards a book proposal in the last month, but found I got bogged down in questions I knew would only be answered through the writing itself. And so I’ve been writing instead. About 4000 words so far, not very much, but enough to see the process I learned during Nanowrimo works as I remember it did. A few hundred words a day, allowing the writing itself to generate ideas and direction, some dedicated reading that inspires and influences my own topic and writing style – and I can see it’s possible to do this thing, though I shake my head as I type those words.

Yesterday I wrote in my process journal, “If a book is to be, it will come out over a long period of work and I will be confident about it then. I do not have to be confident about it now.” Perhaps a bit of a mantra each time I sit down to the laptop and feel stumped at what is going to come next. The trick is to first get a lot of words on the page which reach towards something, and once I see what that something is, to remove every word that doesn’t actually need to be in the way. So that’s what I’m attempting right now. Getting a lot of words on the page every day. I’m not doing anything as heroic as Nanowrimo so my daily output goal is 500-750 words, except on days when I’m writing the newsletter or this blog. I figure that 10,000 words a month is respectable and doable progress, though it will mean cutting back on textile studio time to get there. Even if there is not a book at the end of the rainbow, I will have figured out a lot of thoughts by writing them down.

As to what I am writing about, I’m not exactly sure yet. Not sure enough to share in any case. I will document my experience here as I go as this is the public record of my inner life, and to some degree the writing I am doing now is connected back to the reasons I started this blog in 2003. So if I’m a little quiet at times, that’s where I am. Working out what I think, word by word, encouraged by the springtime emerging outside my window.

2 Comments on “Post #3277: I do not have to be confident about it now

  1. Three things about this post:
    1. Love the mantra: “I do not have to be confident about it now”. I can think of all sorts of ways to apply this, both to writing and to things beyond.
    2. I am coming more and more to see the value of reading–all sorts of things–in pursuit of one’s own writing. I always understood research, but the idea of reading to explore how other people write, even if it is not “my style”, has been extremely useful.
    3. I am not familiar with the pantser vs plotter distinction, but I get it. If a “plantser” is someone who can swing both ways, that might be me! I love outlines, but I only use them in academic-ish writing; I am definitely “winging it” as a matter of process in my less formal pursuits. That is, when I know exactly where I need to end up, I make a darn good map; if I am curious about how I think or what I can discover, meandering works just fine. But I actually enjoy the craft of writing in either situation.

    • Thanks for the thoughts 🙂

      “I do not have to be confident about it now” goes with “start before you are ready” which I did not coin, but also think is right. If we wait until we are ready/confident about something, we might never start at all.

      I am right now reading The Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick, which will be followed by On Immunity by Eula Biss. I have read both of these in the last year, but am re-reading them because they are emblematic of the style I want to write in, or that I think mine is the most like. I am very much a believer in reading for style as much as substance – something I never used to do when I was younger 🙂

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