About four hours ago, I stormed out of my university’s library feeling like I was about to cry. It had nothing to do with my upcoming French midterm or the reading I still had to do. I was pouting because I had written 1,101 unsatisfying words of my third novel, and I felt everything a writer (or any other type of artist) feels when their vision doesn’t unfold the way they want it to–hopelessness, a sense of inferiority, guilt (toward the characters themselves–they deserve better). And of course, the lost feeling that comes when the art one defines him or herself by commits an act of betrayal, and doesn’t give the artist the high he/she wants.
The thing is, I know why it happened. I stopped working on book three in December so I could do another edit of book one (Q: “But Morgan, why are you writing the sequels when there’s no guarantee the first will become a series, or even get published?” A: “Because I have to get this story out of me. I need to write this all down, whether any of it gets published or not”). I spent a bunch of time polishing that. So when I came back to this book…I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I knew what was happening plot-wise. But I couldn’t remember everything that would be weighing on the character’s minds right now. There are so many threads to keep track of while writing a book, and during my time away from it, I lost hold of many of them.
I couldn’t remember the last time a blank page of Microsoft Word looked so intimidating. There I sat, several thousand words into a monster of a book, all of them piling into a massive, overwhelming wall that felt impossible to disassemble. How to take apart the bricks? How to immerse myself back into a character’s emotional world? How to maintain my grip on the multiple things going on in their lives–because characters are always facing more than just the book’s main conflict–and do them justice?
So, I pouted. I barely restrained the urge to throw my purse across the library and freak out my fellow schoolmates. I mourned something lost, as if I could never get it back (though I know I can, because I always do). I stomped into my room and prepared myself a glass of chocolate milk.
But there was one thing, something that came to the forefront of my mind as I trekked across campus to the sound of fun.’s “Carry On.” There was one sentence. There was one combination of words among that dismal 1,101 that took my breath away. And that, in itself, was worth two and a half hours of what I felt tempted to call wasted time.
I’m lucky in the sense that I was able to come up with a solution to this problem, and I did so quickly (probably because of how desperate I felt). I pulled out a notebook and started making a reverse outline, meaning I skimmed through the opening chapters, listing the main events/feelings/motifs, and kept track of them. I will do this for the part of the novel I have so far until I reach the end. Then I will make a summary of what emotional/situational states my four main characters find themselves in at this point of the book. But when you’re an artist, there isn’t always a solution like this. Sometimes you call the muse and nobody answers. Sometimes you just sit there and think, “Well…I suck.” Sometimes you appeal to your characters for help, and they shrug their shoulders and go, “What? We asked you to write this thing. Do your job, woman.”
When this happens, you can give up. When people ask you how your novel is coming along, you can say, “I’m waiting for inspiration to hit me.” Or you can glue your butt to the chair (figuratively–please don’t really do that), place your fingers on the keyboard/pick up the pen, and write. Write every last terrible word. Squirm as the hideous prose appears on the page, each sentence taunting you, every metaphor sagging beneath the weight of hackishness. It hurts, god it hurts, to see your flawed humanity laid out in front of you like that. But if you’re gonna get better, you have to let yourself suck.
This scenario has happened to me 3,905,325 times before. One example that comes to mind occurred this September, after I took a much longer editing break for book one and had to return to book three at the beginning of this year’s semester (really, you think I’d have learned by now). When I think about the first three or so pages I wrote coming back to book three, I cringe. They are so disgusting I don’t even wanna think about them. Similarly, I hope every copy of the opening chapters of my first book burns in the pits of hell so no mortal eyes may ever stumble upon them and subsequently crust over from the sheer mediocrity. But once I slogged through that crap, I encountered beauty. I wrote scenes that made my hands tremble. I transcribed character experiences that made me sit back in my chair and think for a few minutes, because they had moved me enough that I could not continue until I contemplated further. I wrote sentences that, when I scrolled back through the manuscript later on, caught my eye and startled me, because I didn’t think I could have written them.
No matter how intimidated you may be by an artist you admire, remember that their art did not come out looking or sounding or feeling that way. Every piece of art experiences steps, trials, the artist saying, “What monstrosity have I brought into existence?” and “Someone get me a blowtorch.” Leo Tolstoy wanted to fling Anna Karenina across the room most of the time he was writing it. Vincent van Gogh was not exactly big on self-esteem.
“But Morgan!” the hypothetical dissenters cry. “Tolstoy and van Gogh were geniuses! Sure, maybe they had some doubts, but look at the incredible, enduring works they created!”
How do you think they got that way? Ovid wasn’t born spouting verse. No artist created masterpieces in the womb (although if you asked Gertrude Stein, she’d probably claim she did).
So, while I’m drowning my sorrows in chocolate milk tonight, tomorrow I will march back to the library and continue my reverse outline. And when I’m done with that, I will write. There’s a high likelihood it will suck. There’s a chance I will hate it just as much as I hated what I wrote tonight.
But there might be a line, one line, that reminds me why I sat down in the first place.
*Avatar by Charlavail