Writing Lessons: It Doesn’t Get Easier

I subscribe to a blog called Marginalia, which involves a series of letters written between two female writers: Nancy Peacock and Karen Salyer McElmurray. Karen is a creative non fiction prof/mentor in my MFA program at Murray State. I studied poetry back then, so I never had the chance to have her as my mentor, but I have had the privilege of hearing her read and hearing her give a craft lesson.

Anyway, Marginalia is simply two writers musing about writing, but it is such a wonderful blog full of both realism and encouragement for writers. Recently there was a post titled “Spear Fishing,” written by Nancy, in which Nancy admitted, “Tomorrow I start over. I start over with a novel that I have already started twice.” 

I read that and I think my mouth dropped. I think I can’t imagine the dedication it takes to try again when throwing it out would be easier. But then I think about the two years it took me to write my spiritual memoir, Transfigured Faith, and how many times I wrote and re-wrote and organized and re-organized. It turns out that I don’t have the stamina that Nancy has though: I can’t rewrite it again. Not right now.

Why? I know that some of what I wrote is not the story I want to tell anymore. I told the story of my conversion from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy, but at the end of that story, here I am, in the middle of a time of messy, troubled faith. I don’t want to put a message out there that I am so deeply struggling with now. Yes, I’m struggling with Orthodoxy a bit, but I’m mostly just struggling with the Christian faith in general. And a second reason: I know that my manuscript not good enough. It’s not bad, but it’s not ready. I think, one day, I can write a good memoir, and maybe I can use some sections from Transfigured Faith, but, for better or for worse, I have decided to wait on that.

Later in the blog post, Nancy writes:

“I once had an agent who seemed to think that because I’d written one book, the second one would be easier. Like once you’ve figured out how to dress yourself, dressing yourself becomes easier. But that’s not the way it works in the world of writing, or creativity. The point is that it always gets harder. The point is that the next project is going to be a greater challenge to my abilities. The point is that I’m going to learn and grow, and that’s never instant because it can’t be instant.”

This comes from an experienced writer who has published at least 4 books! It gets harder?? But, in a way, it makes sense. Your first book is the best you can write at the time, but you learn from it, and you take those lessons into the writing of your next book. Makes sense, but feels a bit overwhelming.

Karen writes back in the next blog post, “Leaving the Work Behind.” She muses on authors who are willing to discard drafts that aren’t great and simply move on to the next project. Karen writes, “I know, at least at this point, that I could not abandon a draft. In the first place, there’s the persistence factor. It takes me eons to really reach someone’s heart, no less my own.” 

How true that is! Writing, especially writing creative nonfiction, means you have to get deep into yourself, into the cracks and crevices that no one sees, and face whatever is there. It can take time to move through all the layers of your heart to get to the nugget that needs to come out in your writing.

Karen goes on:

“I guess what I ‘m saying is that I ride on with the work, too. Tote it in my back pocket. Carry it on my back. I don’t readily move on to the next rest area, the next town over the ridge, and leave what came before behind. It all accumulates.”

In the next blog post, “McWriting and Burning Journals,” Nancy muses on the fearlessness it takes to let go of drafts, to burn journals, to discard your work. She admits that she doesn’t have that fearlessness. I might argue that sometimes it takes more courage to revise your work one more time rather than to throw it away. But that’s me. Nancy goes on with some really crucial words about letting go and starting new:

“Letting go is not the same as giving up . . . For me, with this work, I’m just abandoning a draft. I’m not abandoning the work . . . What did I learn from the abandoned drafts? I learned enough to give me a better foundation than I had before. I learned a lot about the characters and the story. I learned that I had a story but needed a different structure. I learned that art is slow. There may be McNovels out there, but I don’t write them.”

Many writers wish they could write McNovels – novels written quickly, just like driving through the fast food lane. But I can really appreciate Nancy’s affirmation: art is slow. Good art takes time. Again, this is what I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around in my recent posts about art, writing, creative entrepreneurship, and blogging. I still keep an eye on the spiritual writing world, and the trend I see is that the writers who make it get signed for a 2-book deal and then they have to churn out the books extremely quickly, one right after another. Some writers might be able to do that. But I can’t help but wonder if they are sacrificing quality for quantity. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s just what I see. (I know I’ve been in a critical mood lately, but I truly am trying to work out my own beliefs about art.)

Anyway, I really like how Nancy doesn’t bemoan those old drafts. She doesn’t see them as a waste of her time. She sees them as contributors to the current draft, the draft that will be better. That’s an encouragement to me as a writer. It helps me believe that after two years of working on a book, after sending that book out to beta readers who graciously took the time to read and comment on it, that it’s not a failure on my part to have decided not to move forward with it. I feel like I learned a lot about writing, and I can see some of my mistakes. I read brilliant memoirs and take note of what those authors did that I didn’t do.

I am beginning to see that no, writing never gets easier. But that doesn’t make me want to quit. It just makes me want to try harder, and to hope for the kind of writer I can be in the future.



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