(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter, May 2011)
In traditional tales of the supernatural, there are certain rules. Devils and vampires are both barred from entering your home unless you invite them in. But on the other hand, a good being (wizard, angel, fairy, good witch) might come to your doorstep disguised as a beggar and bless you with your heart’s desire if you feed and house them for the night. So the trick is to figure out how to tell the difference between good and evil. As a writer you also need to know when to open your heart and mind to a project or idea and when to say no.
Closing the Door
Recently I wrote down a bit of advice for a friend’s son who is coming of age. We were asked to pass on wisdom about growing up and becoming a happy, healthy adult. I chose to talk about friendship. I told the young man that finding and keeping friends is an art. Choose wisely. Some people you are meant to friend and others you are meant to drift away from. Hold on to those friends that encourage and love you unconditionally. Let go of friends that make you feel slimed or diminished. The friends that make you feel great will also probably be the ones that feel encouraged and loved by you, as well.
I think this is also true of writing projects. If you are working on a project that makes you feel like crap every time you delve into it or even think about it — if that project makes you feel like a bad writer or like a failure– walk away. Put it in a drawer. Turn to something else.
But, you protest, I need to write it because (choose one of the below):
I told everyone I know I’m working on it
I already told an editor or agent that I finished it
I’m writing it for my ______ (loved one)
It’s supposed to be cathartic
I told my writers support group I’d let them read it by August
It’s what publishers are looking for right now
I don’t want people to think I’m a quitter
A psychic told me I’d make tons of money from it
All of the above
Believe me, if a writing project makes you feel terrible about yourself, it’s not for you. Stop until a time when/if it has a different effect on you. Life’s too short to wallow in negativity.
Now I’m not talking about writing projects with dark plots or characters – they can be delightful to compose and revise – they can fill the writer with glee and inspiration.
And I’m not talking about projects that are difficult to write – they can be your most rewarding manuscripts. We all feel a little down now and then about even our most thrilling books-in-progress, but you know what I’m talking about here, right? Feeling a little down is a passing thing.
What I’m referring to is the gut reaction of dread we sometimes have to a certain project and those stories can be anything from a sunny children’s picture book to a gritty detective novel.
Let your emotions be your guide. Do you feel stronger when you think about writing the project or weaker? Excited or depressed?
The project I’m warning you about is like that friend you need to disconnect from, the one that always makes you feel just a little stupid or ugly or discouraged after you’ve spent a few hours with him. Gently let those friends and projects go. It’s okay to close the door on this kind. Turn and take a fresh breath and follow your bliss. There will always be a true friend and a new story on the path toward your happiness.
Opening the Door
In my second book on writing, NOVEL SHORTCUTS, I talk about listening to your ghosts, the seemingly irrelevant snippets of poems or songs that come to visit sometimes because you are meant to take something from them (a mood or concept) to improve your novel. It’s important to be sensitive to these messengers. But you may also meet other visitors from time to time. I myself was once visited by what I kiddingly refer to as the Spirit of Novels Past.
A few years before I wrote A Certain Slant of Light, my first book sale, I had a dream. Someone from the first novel I ever wrote, the one I started in high school, came to see me. Not sure which character she was or whether she was a character from the book at all. Perhaps she was just the essence of the book. This novel was a young adult Medieval romance adventure (a cross between The Princess Bride, Romeo and Juliet, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with sword fights, a princess in love with a peasant, rescues and escapes, a spell of immortality, night creatures, and castles.
The Spirit of Novels Past spoke only a few words: “Something about this place is right.” It sounds cryptic as I write it down now, but during the dream I had an instant sense of the meaning. Until that night I’d been feeling like I’d matured and moved on from young adult novels. And I was too grown up for magic. But now I realized I was wrong. I’d been on the right track back in high school. Maybe I didn’t know exactly which part of that first novel was important to return to (ideas, scents, colors, textures, themes, emotions?) but I believed I should listen. I opened the door to this messenger. Although the manuscript I broke in with had no castles or swords, it was a YA supernatural romance. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
The easiest way to know which direction to go when you’re at a crossroads in your writing life is to use a pleasure compass. If a project or idea brings you joy it is probably right for you. Projects may be offered you in serendipitous circumstances but probably not all will be meant for you. Some will give you feelings of dread in your basement or attic (I paraphrase Ghostbusters) and some will fill you with a sense of well-being. Follow your joy.
But if your emotions are confused or conflicted, try this exercise. Write down the name of the writing idea on a piece of paper and hold it in your fist with that arm straight out from the side of your body. Try to keep your arm parallel to the floor while someone tries to pull down on that hand. If the project is good for you, you will be strong. If not, you won’t be able to keep your arm up. I know it sounds crazy, but your subconscious “wiser” self will know who is at the door, as it were.
Be brave and say no when you need to. Be bold, love hard, and throw open your doors and windows wide at the first whiff of bliss.