I’ve been making some huge progress with my revision the last two weeks (exciting!), and while I’m revising I’m also adding to and filling out the story in a lot of ways. As I write, I keep thinking back to the workshops I took in college. I remember there were some where everyone had to share and some where it was volunteer. There were others where you had an assigned time to share, so you knew ahead of time that your writing would be seen by your peers.
At the end of my senior year my thesis advisor invited our class to her home to turn in our final pieces and chat about the future. I was fortunate to have Mary Gordon as my writing professor. Well, I was fortunate in a lot of ways – that Barnard has a great writing program, that a lot of those writers give back by coming to teach the students there, and that those students give such thoughtful and helpful feedback. Professor Gordon is the kind of person who always says quotable things. I look through my notebooks from college and find random sentences scribbled in the margins that could probably be printed on inspirational posters for writers. Anyway, I bring her up because she said something during that class that has always stayed with me.
When we were at Professor Gordon’s house we were all talking about how difficult it is when you’re writing new material and you feel like it’s just bad. Or, without a doubt, you know that it’s bad. This happens to me occasionally, and it’s probably the most discouraging thing about writing. We asked our professor what she does to get through moments like that.
“You don’t have to publish everything,” she said, “there are some things you can just keep to yourself. There are some things that are just bad. Just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it has to be published.”
Now, this can seem sort of contradictory if you think about it. If I want to support myself with my writing, then isn’t publishing the point? But that’s not really what she meant. Nobody is great all the time, at anything. Cooks burn stuff. Artists break stuff. Police officers get parking tickets. Just because we write and we want to (hope to) make money from that doesn’t mean we have to make money from all of it. For example, I used to write for my high school newspaper. One month I had no ideas for articles but my editor (who was my best friend) insisted I turn in an article anyway. I wrote 500 words about how irritating it is when your coffee is too hot when you first get it and you have to wait to drink it. She printed it in the final issue of the paper to teach me a lesson, but the point still applies: that was probably something that no eyes needed to see but mine.
I also took a playwriting class my senior year in college while I was working on my thesis. Now, don’t get me wrong: I am horrible at playwriting. Well, I was horrible at the kind of playwriting my professor wanted me to do (stage as metaphor? What?). But I remember on the first day the other students and I were sitting around the table talking about how we didn’t know the first thing about writing plays and our professor came in with a giant box. She dumped it over in the center of the table and over 150 plays spilled out everywhere. “Pick some,” she said, “and don’t be afraid to make a mess.”
I still don’t understand anything about metaphors and the stage, but whenever I feel like I don’t know what to write to make a scene work, or where I should go next in the story, I just think about that day and keep writing anyway. I’m hoping some of you will share your own stories and advice about what to do when you feel like your writing is just not going where you want it to go. Leave a comment below!
My advice to you? Keep writing–and don’t be afraid to make a mess.