Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Writing: The Agony and the Ecstasy

The writing process can feel as though you're riding the waves of a stormy sea: one minute you're being tossed up into sunlight and warmth, the next being dragged down into the breathless dark, where you wonder if it's really worth the effort to fight your way back up again. You finish a project, feel on top of the world, feel like you've done something real this time and want to share it...but that feeling can't last. There's always a sort of postpartum downturn, when the gloss wears off and the seams show--or just because you come to the realization that you can't fully share that elation with anyone else in the world. No one fully understands what that story felt like to write and how you feel about having completed it.

Writing, perhaps more than any other creative activity, is often a lonely outlet. You don't see every reader, you don't know what every reader thinks, you rarely get feedback or even know how many people you reach. I'd guess this is a frustration for anyone who has ever composed a paragraph, from people posting on forums or listservs all the way up through best-selling authors. So often you pour out your heart and soul into your work, and it goes into a great blackhole: there's no way of knowing just where your words—all those pretty little lined up words you were so proud of—are going or what they're up to out there.

The Internet is a wonderful horrible place that compounds this issue many times over. Any Joe Schmo with a keyboard can now reach thousands of people—or more—with a few keystrokes. Oh, the power! But we have even *less* knowledge of who we're really reaching. Yes, there are such things as hit-counters, and some sites like Flickr and Scribd give you some vague numbers. But having those is perhaps worse. Watching a number go up without getting any comments or other feedback, you start to think, “Who are all you people???” And you wonder, do people not comment because they have nothing nice to say?

I think these things, despite knowing how many blogs I cruise on a daily basis without ever commenting. In the typosphere, there aren't many blogs I don't follow continuously, but a lot of the time I feel like I have nothing worth contributing, or as if the writer has already said all there is to say, and I wouldn't have anything to say aside from, “Right on!” which seems kinda lame, honestly. (That said, I treasure every “Right on!” I get on LFP, even while I—DuffyMoon-like—sometimes question the sincerity of the Right-on-ians...)

And then, feedback is just one piece of the puzzle. The truth is that the writing process itself is a matter of ups and downs. Some days you love what you're writing and think it's actually pretty good. Some days you hate it. Some days it just seems so pointless that you can't muster up anything as strong as like and dislike. The never-ending instability of it all can drive you crazy. I can understand only too well why so many authors and poets have led troubled lives, many with unhappy endings.

This month, I've been rereading bits and pieces of St. Therese's autobiography, Story of a Soul. She is someone in whom many of us, regardless of religious beliefs or lack thereof, would find a kindred spirit. She talks a great deal about her struggles with desiring the approval of others and the anxiety that can bring, as well the ups and downs that one experiences in spiritual life, when at times you feel nothing but dryness, unable to pray or concentrate: very much mirroring what we may feel in other areas of our lives. Without putting words in her mouth, I think I can say that the trick is to accept the “consolations” when they come—those moments when an encouraging word or a burst of creativity lifts us to those glorious heights—without clinging to them too hard, treasuring them in retrospect without expecting them as the norm; and to take the difficult moments as just a part of the path rather than the end of it all, knowing that the next bend may bring another breathtaking vista.


deek said...

Right on!

But yeah, I feel the exact same way. I am obsessive about getting feedback, but as you so accurately put it, rarely does it come in volumes...

And those days where you want to give up...yeah, I could do without those, too!

Anne said...

Your post reminds me of Kathleen Norris and how she writes about the moodiness of authors. Wouldn't it be great if we could all be even keeled whether we are writing well or writing at all? I'm with you here, quite obsessed and easily sink to the depths or climb the heights. Most of the time I'd like to give it up because it drives me so crazy...but I can't! Heaven help us all!

speculator said...

Well, some of your points relate to whether or not you're writing to an audience (or how pivotal that is). I can relate- even though I'm not writing novels for others to read. But, similarly, I pour heart and soul into journaling. Many times I've had to separate from the idea of personal writing validated by comments. Sure, the comments are very encouraging- but even more, it amazes me how reflective journaling can connect those who write and read! The writing continues, simply because I need to keep writing the journey, "because it's there."

I've shied away from hit-counters. The Cloud of Unknowing gives me a lot of inspiration about the freedom of being anonymous and in an ignominy.
Keep writing- even if just for the sake of your own narrative!

Elizabeth H. said...

I'm going to go all reflective and wordy for a moment here, thanks to Anne and Speculator. This part does and doesn't apply to writing. It isn't confined to writing, in any case.

Today's Gospel reading was about the rich young man--the one Jesus told to sell all and then come back and follow Him. And one of our hymns today was based on a beautiful prayer of St. Augustine:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

The song starts off this way:
Oh, late have I loved you, oh late have I turned;
Turned from seeking you in creatures, fleeing grief and pain within.

And I think that's a personal challenge for me. There are material things I enjoy using, but I really believe I could walk away from them without anything more than vague regret. On several occasions, I've moved around and practically started over as far as belongings go, and except for the times when I can't remember if I got rid of some needed tool or another, it doesn't bother me all that much. On the other hand, it makes me frantic when I can't win the approval of others, or when I feel I'm bothering people or annoying them. I can tell myself that God's opinion is all that matters, but living that out is incredibly difficult.

speculator said...

E: The approval you need most is the one you most surely have. Now, give that assurance to yourself as you create and explore!
Perhaps try to think of yourself even as your friends think of you. And that's a small hint of how the Giver of all life sees you.

deek said...

I'm currently reading "On Writing" by Stephen King (great book, btw). Anyways, he mentioned something I really took to heart. He said that when you are writing a story, at first, that story is for you. That is your only audience and its basically for you to get the story out to yourself.

After that, its for the readers to enjoy and or criticize. That is starting to help me when writing a new story and will certainly be a big change to my current mentatlity, but I think in the end, it will be for the better.

Anne said...

Before I started my blog six months ago, I was always down because I wanted more than anything to be published, especially in our local Diocesan newspaper. I worried that the reason my stories were always rejected was that maybe I was writing for my glory and not for God's glory. I went to confession and spoke of my pride in my motive for writing, and the priest told me that I absolutely must continue to write, that through this means I will draw people to God. (I had never told him that I was writing anything spiritual.)

I complained to my friend Katherine (her blog is "Inside Out" on my sidebar in case you care to check it out). She is the one who told me to start a blog. Along with that suggestion, she gave me some really good advice. She said "Write for yourself and not for anyone else. If you write for others, you will always be disappointed because they won't visit very often or leave comments. But, if you write because you feel better after you've done so, you'll never be disappointed. I think she was right.

I hope this helps you feel better Elizabeth. If you've got to get it out of yourself, and like Catherine de Heuck Doherty, you "meditate best in writing", then write away! And if you happen to please and inspire a few people along the way, then all the better!

God bless you, and I love the St. Augustine quote-who could ever write better than that?

Elizabeth H. said...

He said that when you are writing a story, at first, that story is for you. That is your only audience and its basically for you to get the story out to yourself. After that, its for the readers to enjoy and or criticize.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. How does one transition from one stage to the next? Up until the past few months, I'd never really worked at that part. How do you take something you wrote initially for your own enjoyment and in order to "think on paper" (I like that bit from Catherine de Heuck Doherty, Anne!), and turn it into something for a larger audience?

I suppose that's where beta readers come in, but they don't exactly grow on trees or hang out on street corners. I don't think. Something to think about, though.

I think I'm mixing together a couple of issues here. That's the thinking in writing thing going, I guess! Thank you all for your thoughts--they have been very helpful. Truly. I don't have many folks in "real" life with whom I can blather about writing and such. ;-)

Monda said...

That was so lovely, LFP. The post, your comment responses, the prayer of St. Augustine.

I'm going to turn writing-teacher for a second here: This is when you're at your writing best. The vulnerability and questioning and process of becoming are so real. There's an crystalline authenticity in the choices you make and the reader can't resist it.

Everyone has an audience in their head when they write, even if it's in a private journal. Posterity is a peculiar audience. So is the Unpleasable Jury bunch that sometimes takes up residence when they should not.

When we're your audience, you relax and sing. Pick us for the NaNo. Tie those other ones up in the closet until December.

(Writing Prof, over and out.)

Monda said...

And change that erratic "an" to an "a."