Recently, I had my ass handed to me by my writing group. It was a good thing, this ass-handing. It didn’t feel quite as nice as being handed a bouquet of roses and a Grammy, but, it was probably more valuable.
What happened was this: I brought in a VERY rough draft of a book chapter I’d written and I read it aloud to my writing group. I then got some VERY valuable feedback. Feedback that made me reconsider whether or not I should be calling myself a writer.
The piece I brought to my group was one I’d written a while ago and it was really my first real pass at writing a full chapter of anything. It was a piece about one of my very first clients and how unhealthy our relationship was. I hadn’t quite told enough of the backstory in the piece, and I can see now that it was not so much a chapter in a book as it was really an angry breakup letter with my client. A breakup letter plus every bitter, snarky last thing I have ever wanted to say to everyone I have felt under-appreciated by in my life. Ever. My God, was it awful. You know how sometimes you think of the MOST clever comebacks five minutes after someone says something inappropriate to you? Well, imagine a whole five pages of that. With a lot more expletives and nastiness. Bookended by “once upon a time” and “the end”.
I don’t know where I got it in my head that I would just sit down, and, in twelve easy installments, crank out a full length book like it was no big thang, like the book was a gorgeous butterfly just waiting in the chrysalis of my subconscious, fully formed and perfect. But I did think that, and I brought that first draft to my group thinking I had started my book. Now the truth of the start sits before me, much more representative in the form of a hairy-knuckled troll, soil-damp and smelly. This whole writing a book thing is MUCH harder than I thought it would be. It’s still entirely possible the story is fully formed and beautiful inside me, but I need to contend with the troll first. I HAVE begun to write my book, but it is not the beginning I thought it would be.
I should have tossed that first draft into the “it’s unhealthy for you to have this much pent up rage inside you, so it’s best to just throw this rage-vomit right into the fireplace” file. But I didn’t. Anxious to just start the process of airing these stories out, I read the piece to my writing group. Ah, woooo boy! It was sort of like hearing yourself say something stupid and then watching yourself try to recover by saying something even more stupid and then watching helplessly as more and more stupid things just come tumbling out of your mouth. I couldn’t stop it. The train had left the station. The cow was out of the barn.
Lucky for me, I write with a fantastically honest and supportive group of people and they gave me some very helpful feedback. They explained that perhaps this piece was better suited for my journal (with a title of “Why I Think So-And-So Is a A Great Big Poopy-Head”) than for general consumption.
I’m learning. I’m learning so much.
I’m learning that the pace of my book-writing progress is aligned with the pace of my life. That’s frustrating because I want it to go much faster. But the path to the end of a piece is wending and sometimes it doesn’t even involve sitting down in front of a computer and typing. Sometimes, to get the story out, I need to shop for shoes, or go for a walk, or make a pot of soup from scratch. I need to acknowledge the path that the words themselves take to get where they need to go. In my head, at night as I am drifting off to sleep, my book sounds like poetry, like well organized, gorgeous poetry. And sometimes when I sit down to write, it doesn’t come out that way at all. It comes out sounding like an upset orangutan wrote it. It sounds like: “Dumb man say bad things. Make me mad. Me hate dumb man. Me hate job. Something something something me so much smarter than dumb man something something something dramatic wrap-up.” After all those years of being jammed up in my heart, the words and the story and the character arc are all trying to get out at the same time, and they’re getting all knotted up and coming out all crooked and one-sided. And that’s frustrating. And, quite frankly, startling.
I am learning the very first draft of a story is like the first pancake. I have to be willing to throw it out. I’m only warming up the griddle with that first pancake; it’s not intended for consumption. That first pancake is a test: Is the griddle too hot? The batter too runny?
Right now, the words are like fetid water that’s been sitting in a pipe for too long. The story is behind it. In order to get to the good stuff, I’ve got to let that water run for a few minutes. That fetid stuff MUST have the opportunity to come out before I put my cup underneath the pipe to catch a bit to drink. If I drink the stuff that comes out first, I’ll find my mouth full of rust and debris. The story will be brown and bitter and it won’t slake my thirst. That first run of writing is poison. It’s all the stuff I’ve wanted to say to everyone who did me wrong. It’s all the self indulgent bellyaching and why-me sob story I’ve been rehearsing for years. And most important of all: It’s got nothing to do with the story I want to tell.
I didn’t know this rusty stuff was going to come out when I sat down to write this book. I mean, I figured the writing would be fierce. But I didn’t know it would be so mean and entitled and entirely lacking empathy. I thought I was writing this honest and clear emotion that anyone could relate to. I hadn’t. I’d written something from the fog of anger, and anger is fleeting. After the anger, there was nothing else for my readers to hold onto.
Everyone has to start somewhere, I suppose. My start is SO much more messy than I thought it would be. I thought I would be sitting all cool in my granny sweater and ironic retro sneakers in a café on Thursday mornings cranking out perfect chapter after perfect chapter. After all, this story has all been sitting in my veins for years and years. You would think that something with that much built up pressure would have no problem releasing. I mean, I’m a volcano, not a constipated rhino for God’s sake. I think this stuff should be shooting out of my wrists like webbing, like fireworks, like a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. But it isn’t. Some days I sit at the machine and I think I’m telling a story. What I am actually doing is having a one way argument with a computer screen. I’m “yelling in the basement” as my friend John says.
Last night, I met with my writing group again and I attempted my story one more time. I wrote for ten minutes without that rage. I simply said what happened. And what showed up on that page was the story I wanted to tell: Once upon a time there was a young woman. She worked for a man. She struggled with the work. She left the man. The end. It was clean, and it was powerful. It landed entirely differently than that first piece with my audience. It offered so much broader a picture, so much more detail for my readers to play with.
There will be many more weeks, months, even years of yelling in the basement. What I’m sure of now, after having shared my new piece with my group, that after the yelling, the story will come.