“Trenches #1,” Redux
[Not sure why, but my instinct tells me to re-run this post (the first in our “Reports from the Trenches” series) today, rather than posting a new one. Sometimes things need to be seen twice. I think this might be one of those times. So … here goes, in its entirety:]
I’m gonna take a break in this series on Villains and instead open up my skull and share what’s going on in my own work right now.
It ain’t pretty.
I’m offering this post in the hope that an account of my specific struggles at this moment will be helpful to other writers and artists who are dealing with the same mishegoss, i.e. craziness, or have in the past, or will in the future.
Here’s the story:
Eighteen months ago I had an idea for a new fiction piece. I did what I always do at such moments: I put it together in abbreviated (Foolscap) form—theme, concept, hero and villain, Act One/Act Two/Act Three, climax—and sent it to Shawn.
He loved it.
I plunged in.
Cut to fifteen months later. I sent the finished manuscript (Draft #10) to Shawn.
He hated it.
I’m overstating, but not by much.
Shawn sent me back a 15-page, single-spaced file titled “Edit letter to Steve.” That was April 28, about ten weeks ago.
Every writer who is reading this, I feel certain, has had this identical experience. Myself, I’ve been through it probably fifty times over the years, for novels, for screenplays, for everything.
Here was my emotional experience upon reading Shawn’s notes:
- I went into shock.
It was a Kubler-Ross experience. Shawn’s notes started out positively. He told me the things he liked about the manuscript. I knew what was coming, though.
When I hit the “bad part,” my brain went into full vapor lock. It was like the scene in the pilot of Breaking Bad when the doctor tells Bryan Cranston he’s got inoperable lung cancer. The physician’s lips are moving but no sound is coming through.
Here’s the e-mail I sent back to Shawn:
Pard, I just read your notes and as usually happens, I’m kinda overwhelmed. As you suggest, I’ll have to re-read a bunch of times and chew this all over.
MAJOR, MAJOR THANKS for the effort and skill you put into that memo. Wow.
I’m gonna sit with this for a while.
Can you read between the lines of that note? That is major shell shock.
- I put Shawn’s notes away and didn’t look at them for two weeks.
In some corner of my psyche I knew Shawn was right. I knew the manuscript was a trainwreck and I would have to rethink it from Square One and start again.
I couldn’t face that possibility.
The only response I could muster in the moment was to put Shawn’s notes aside and let my unconscious deal with them.
Meanwhile I put myself to work on other projects, including a bunch of Writing Wednesdays posts. But a part of me was thinking, How dare I write anything ‘instructional’ when, after fifty years of doing this stuff, I still can’t get it right myself?
There’s a name for that kind of thinking.
It’s called Resistance.
I knew it. I knew that this was a serious gut-check moment. I had screwed up. I had failed to do all the things I’d been preaching to others.
- After two weeks I took Shawn’s notes out and sat down with them. I told myself, Read them through one time, looking only for stuff you can agree with.
If Shawn’s notes made eight points, I found I could accept two.
That’s a start.
I wrote this to Shawn:
Pard, gimme another two weeks to convince myself that your ideas are really mine. Then I’ll get back to you and we can talk.
- Three days later, I read Shawn’s notes again.
This time I found four things to agree with.
That was progress. For the first time I spied a glimmer of daylight.
- Two days later I began thinking of one of Shawn’s ideas as if I had come up with it myself.
Yeah, it’s my idea. Let’s rock it!
(I knew of course that the idea was Shawn’s. But at last, forward motion was occurring. I had passed beyond the Denial Stage.)
I’ll continue this Report From the Trenches next week. I don’t want this post to run too long and get boring.
The two Big Takeaways from today:
First, how lucky any of us is if we have a friend or editor or fellow writer (or even a spouse) who has the talent and the guts to give us true, objective feedback.
I’d be absolutely lost without Shawn.
And second, what a thermonuclear dose of Resistance we experience when faced with the hard truth about something we’ve written that truly sucks.
Our response to this moment, I believe, is what separates the pros from the amateurs. An amateur at this juncture will fold. She’ll balk, she’ll become defensive, she’ll dig in her heels and refuse to alter her work. I can’t tell you how close I came to doing exactly that.
The pro somehow finds the strength to bite the bullet. The process is not photogenic. It’s a bloodbath.
For me, the struggle is far from over. I’ve got weeks and weeks to go before I’m out of the woods and, even then, I may have to repeat this regrouping yet again.
[NOTE TO READER: Shall I continue these “reports from the trenches?” I worry that this stuff is too personal, too specific. Is it boring? Write in, friends, and tell me to stop if this isn’t helpful.