I planned to write about my struggle with the query process this time around, but something happened this week that bumped that topic* from the roster. Tuesday night, I had to give a healthy dose of tough love to one of the members of my writers’ group. And now I’m wondering if either a) she will actually absorb some of what I said and be better for it, or b) I will never see her again.
It’s been building for a while. This member, I’ll call her Shelly, joined our group about six months ago and since then we have been reading the first draft of her manuscript, which purportedly comes in at a whopping 150,000 words and still doesn’t have an ending.
Prior to joining our group, Shelly had only shared her work anonymously on writers’ support websites, and she was clearly uneasy when she submitted her first chapter to us. It’s hard to put your work, and ostensibly yourself, out to be judged. But we all loved her first chapter. It was dark and mysterious and utterly intriguing. She seemed heartened by our praise and our desire to read more.
As the chapters kept coming, we noted issues of plausibility, repetition in scenes, unnecessary details, and other things that I absolutely expect while reading a first draft**. Submission after submission, we gave her the same critiques, the same suggestions, but none of our feedback ever seemed to make it into subsequent chapters. There may be some selfish interest at work here, but it’s a bit frustrating to critique into a vacuum. After all, hadn’t she joined the group in the interest of improving her writing?
During our meetings, she readily acknowledged that her novel needs work, but repeatedly made statements such as “But I don’t know how to fix it” and “But I need for [insert random scene] to happen that way”. When we questioned the plausibility of certain plot points, she responded with complicated explanations as to how it was actually possible. The real issue was that she listened to five people express the same concerns, and instead of making a note to address the problem, spent five minutes essentially telling us why we were wrong.
But the real topper came along with her last email:
Yeah, just think of these [two chapters] as a rewrite of the last. Or if you have a really bad memory, you can think of them as new… You guys ever seen Groundhog Day?
I actually rolled my eyes when I read this. She was essentially warning us that the next two chapters would be exactly like the last. So why the hell was she submitting them?
This week’s meeting was much like those in the past with one exception: someone finally spoke up. One of our members, Gus, ended his critique with the following statement: “In this group, we are here to help each other in whatever capacity is most beneficial to the writer. I’m not sure what your process is, but as a reader, I would like to see a lot less repetition of the same issues submission after submission.”
Shelly looked like she’d been slapped in the face. I tried to soften the blow but also back him up.
“I’m not sure how beneficial it is for you to hear the same comments with each submission, so perhaps it’s best if you take some time to revise before you share your next chapters.”
This only seemed to make matters worse. “But I can’t revise until I finish the book. I can’t go back, and also I don’t even know how to fix it.” I pointed out that she is currently sitting on about fifteen chapters’ worth of our feedback, but she shook her head. “But I can’t go back. I have to write the ending first.”
Gus suggested she write a synopsis of the ending, that way she could start revising from the beginning in good conscience. “But I can’t,” she insisted. “I have to write the ending.”
We went around in circles for some time, with each suggestion met by an adamant “But-“ or “I can’t-“. Then Shelly said maybe it wasn’t even worth finishing her book since clearly none of us like it, since we’re always pointing out how many problems it has.
Finally, I had to level with her.
“For the last fifteen minutes, everything that has come out of your mouth has been negative and self-defeating. You can’t do anything until you finish your book but you don’t know how. You know you need to revise but you aren’t going to do it until you finish the book and anyway you don’t know how to fix it. You have already decided that there is no hope and you immediately dismiss any suggestion we make. Why are you so determined to self-sabotage?”
This got her attention.
Of course I already knew the answer. We are all afraid of failing. We are also afraid of succeeding, and in some ways, even more afraid to let ourselves believe we are actually capable of success. Shelly is essentially telling herself – and now us – that she is going to fail. Don’t get your hopes up because this is going to suck!
Words matter. A lot. The words we read, speak, and hear inform who we are and how we see the world. And when you tell yourself that you are a failure, you will believe it.
I leaned in toward her, pointer finger extended. “Stop telling yourself that you can’t. Stop shitting on yourself and your work. Stop it!”
I’d like to say that in that moment, Shelly had a huge life-changing realization and we all hugged and everyone left much happier. In truth, I did see the shock of recognition spread over her face, if only for a moment. I had called her on her shit and she was temporarily without words. Alas, deeply ingrained destructive habits aren’t so easy to break, and she responded with, “But that’s my M.O. I don’t know how else to be.”
On our way out of the café that night, I told Shelly to call or text or email me if she wants to talk more after she has time to think about our discussion. Because I get it. I have spent a fair amount of time in introspection and therapy to finally get the “worst critic” voice in my own head to shut the f*ck up. Mostly, anyway.
Our next meeting is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, and I hope to see her there. But it’s in her hands now.
*Although believe me, the struggle is real.
** Which is why I generally do not let anyone read my first drafts.
We all have our go-to stories, the ones we love to tell at dinner parties or over drinks with friends. The time you came across porn on a co-worker’s computer. That time in college when you got drunk and passed out in the laundry room. I have several of my own favorite stories, ranging from awkward blind dates to the roommate who routinely ate spoiled food. While these experiences were somewhat horrifying at the time (i.e. the therapist who referred to his clients as “whiners”, the ever-present smell of my roommate’s rotting produce in the refrigerator), they are some of my favorite stories to tell.
But what about the stories we can’t laugh off, even years later?
I recently came across a call for submissions for personal essays on the theme “It Left Me Speechless”. It sounded like a fun challenge and a good introduction to a possible new writing venue, and almost at once, I thought of the perfect story. The problem was that even thinking about delving into the emotional details of this perfect story made my stomach squirm.
For several days, I tried but failed to find inspiration in a series of lighter but much less compelling experiences. By its very definition, a personal essay is, well…personal. It reveals the writer’s innermost thoughts, feelings, vulnerabilities. Sharing our intimate selves with others is part of what makes us human. But it’s also scary as hell. And the requisite self-examination that goes into the effort is often even more terrifying.
So, about that “perfect” story that I am compelled to tell but afraid to face…well, I will say this much: I had a minor nervous breakdown. Not the straightjacket-and-padded-cell kind we usually associate with the term. I remained a generally productive member of society, went to work, fed myself, bathed regularly. But I was broken.
It started off as what should have been a relatively routine break-up. We weren’t a good fit, we wanted different things, etc. But for months afterward, I was plagued by anxiety. I awoke every morning to the crushing realization that I was still alive. My mind was a churning cesspool, and I was afraid of my own toxic thoughts. I didn’t vacuum my apartment for over six weeks because I couldn’t stand to be alone with my brain while the sound of the vacuum drowned out all other external noise. I started smoking again because I needed to do something with my hands. I also started running because I had so much nervous energy, and I couldn’t bear to sit still.
In short, I was a mess.
While I am well over the guy, it seems I am still not quite over the aftermath. And perhaps really digging in to write this piece would help me to resolve that. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence shows that people who write out their feelings tend to be happier, to feel more resolved with their problems. This is of course a form of therapy. Perhaps the best thing I could do for myself is to look my demons in the eyes.
Can you only write about something once you’ve resolved it? Or is writing about it part of the process? And once you’ve written about it, how do you know when to share it with others and when to file it safely away under “Emotional Word Vomit – Do Not Disclose”?
I don’t know the answers. I may discover them by plunging in headfirst, but only if I can find the guts.