As I near the end of the first draft of my novel in progress, tentatively called
THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, I’ve been looking back at this diary for a reality check on where I was a year ago. I came across an entry in which I wrote about a talk I was preparing for the Greater San Diego Council of Teachers of English. I titled the talk “Writing Scared,” a feeling any serious writer should understand perfectly. “Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it,” I wrote, “and in that case, why bother?”
“In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems in smaller ones that aren’t overwhelming and that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten.”
The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy, and to keep the fear under control requires figuring out the baby steps every single time, whether it’s for a short paper or a full-length book.
At the time I wrote the diary entry I quoted from above, I was percolating an idea for a new novel. Everything about the project terrified me–the subject matter, the lack of a really clear idea of the plot and characters, the setting, the historical period, the work.
The work. Oh, yes. Writing a novel is a huge and utterly draining undertaking. I was apprehensive about going there again, and then, as always happens, the project took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go.
A year later, the book that had me talking to English teachers about writing scared is now nearly finished. It’s not so scary any more, but the next one…? As I said a year ago, “Some things never change…. It’s pretty big, pretty scary. Can I whittle it down into do-able pieces? Awfully glad I think so.” Do I know for sure? Not until it’s done.