All large tasks are completed in a series of starts.
- Neil Fiore
Better by far to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.
- Katherine mansfield
There you sit. Your notes are lined up, you've been dreaming the scenes, jotting down dialogue in the middle of the night. You fall asleep, thinking, Tomorrow is the day. Definitely the day. Only you wake up standing at the far edge of yourself. Your computer sits open, humming, waiting for you to give your work wings. You make another pot of tea, stand at the window of your work space and consider the sky. In time you walk to your desk, sit down and drop your head on those stacks of perfectly arranged notes and research.
I think the difficulty of starting a major work or undertaking a chunk of new work on something already in progress is different than the experience of procrastination. Procrastination, for me, suggests a deep-seated discomfort or dislike of the work itself that renders any other activity or errand vastly more appealing. We procrastinate our taxes. We procrastinate cleaning out the boxes in the basement. We procrastinate caulking the tub. Writing is something I LOVE to do. A way of stepping out of time, riding the electric current as far and fast as it will take me. So why am I right this minute avoiding the start of a major revision?
Art psychologist Eric Maisel notes that many, if not most artists have trouble starting. His opinion is that "It is not the journey that daunts so much as the packing for the journey; not the writing of the song, but the packing away of the untidy doubts, fears, and self-recriminations."
This hit home.
Packing for the journey. Emotional readiness. In my case, staring down a third-pass revision. Managing an intricate reworking of characters and plot, and developing as-yet unimagined new material into the core of my story. Shoot me now.
I have the skills. I know how to do this. I have done it before. I also know this is a process that wholly consumes my mind and my time. Dinners are not made, sleep is scant, the telling ache of carpal tunnel creeps back into my wrists, I miss the sun as it rises and sets. Day after day I tap away on my keyboard, butt numb in the chair. This is about going under, going deep, holding my breath as long as I possibly can and getting as much done on each dive as possible. Urgency hovers in my thoughts. Fear of losing a promising thread or floundering in a firehose of inspiration. Life flows somewhere above the surface of this project, marching on without me, leaving me behind in the time I am down deep, deep in the dark murk of what I will have to trust my instincts to navigate and that alone scares the hell out of me. After all, instincts get you to a draft, and that gets you to revision, but all along you're making mistakes and only occasionally hitting the mark. The work doesn't stand as a whole yet. We mine in the dark.
Maisel is right. This thing that has me dodging my office in favor of sorting the junk drawer in the kitchen is fear. Fear of not getting the words right; of working hard and coming up empty - or worse, wrecking what I already have. It is fear of not being good enough, trained enough, or capable of the herculean challenges ahead. Of wasting time. A lifetime. Fear crouches on the moment we open the paint tube, label the word document, adjust the camera aperture, declare ourselves ready to begin. It feels impossible to pack enough courage and faith.
We circle the entrance to the maze, unable to step in.
The antidote to fear is faith. Faith in the work. Trust we will accomplish what we set out to do. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa's mouth many, many times. Not because the painting was difficult, but because there was something more to be said. He worked to capture an expression he had yet to paint to his satisfaction. And because of this, the Mona Lisa's originality haunts us. Picasso famously declared, "To copy oneself is pathetic." We admire the bull-headedness and willingness to take risks of writers and artists like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. When I think about the novel revision ahead, my goal is no less determined. My intention is not to produce patches and fillers but more daunting and intangible: getting the story right.
But personally, if I ever felt good enough to copy myself I'd be thrilled.
Let me leave you with this quote from Hemingway to Robert Cantwell in 1950, addressing criticism but more to the point, the importance of answering only to the critic within:
Book is truly very good ["Across the River and Into the Trees"]. You pan it to hell if you don't like it. That is your right and duty. But I have read it 206 times to try and make it better and to cut out any mistakes or injustices and on the last reading I loved it very much and it broke my fucking heart for the 206th time. This is only a personal reaction and should be dis-counted as such. But I have been around quite a while reading and writing and can tell shit from the other things. . . But pan it, ride it, or kill it if you should or if you can.
By the way, "Across the River and Into the Trees" is soon to be made into a major film. Hemingway knew his work would stand the test of time. So pack your bag for the journey. Leave your doubts and worries in the drawer. Take only what you need to make the most of your time in the deep end. As for me? I start tomorrow.