June 11, 2010

That Awful Moment of Doubt

There’s this moment of intense self-doubt right after I start a story. Before that, there’s the terror of the blank page, of course, but for me, this second thing is worse, maybe because I always have a lot of ideas and I usually can think of a first sentence or a first image to get started with.

What usually happens is I write a couple of paragraphs. These paragraphs are usually very straightforward. I’m figuring out the characters and the plot and starting to make connections, but I have not yet had time to think about deeper things, metaphors, the separate elements that come together to give a story surprise and depth. But then I look at those paragraphs and think, You write like crap. This is something a first-year writer would write. This really sucks.

I have to take some deep breaths and cut myself some slack. Give it time, I tell myself. Trust the process. This last one is a big one for me. I know the process works, and reminding myself to trust it gives me the courage to go on. I remember writing my first papers on college. I didn’t have a process nor the vocabulary to explicate what I was trying to do so I didn’t have faith in the process to fall back on. Talk about yer procrastination.

Sometimes, at this point in the story, I give up. I put the story aside and sometimes never return. Especially if the magical next step doesn’t happen.

The magical next step is when I sit back and think about things, maybe force myself to write a little more or edit through what I have. Then it’s like this door opens up. Often what happens is a little tiny thread that laid itself down in the first sentences starts to get bigger and resonate. I think of it as a metaphor for a character or I start thinking about the contrasts between characters, about layers of narrative.

Let me give you an example. This week’s SSFD story is about a boy who wants to catch a toad and about his mother and father’s relationship. I started from the boy’s point of view, and it read like a children’s story only without any charm whatsoever. I tried to make it better by adding elements of The Wind in the Willows. Not much luck. Then I moved to the mom’s perspective. It came out in the same flat skimming-through-time no-depth that the first part had. Here is where I had that moment of doubt. You know, this sucks. Then I started thinking about the metaphor of a toad. What if I use the metaphor of a toad in other areas of the story. I’ll make the mother a wildlife biologist who studies the Wyoming Toad. And I’ll make the father a dreamer like Mr. Toad and that will be the tension in the story. (Remember what I said here about how I often find a second element or metaphor to deepen a story?)

Who knows how it’ll end up? That’s part of the great adventure that is writing.

What I’m Reading Today: Not much. Yesterday was my husband and my 17th anniversary, so we went out for sushi, sake, and Shrek. What fun!

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