The writing process is both individual and communal, as receiving constructive feedback and outside encouragement helps our drafts become finished manuscripts. Author Peri Chickering discusses how opening ourselves up to others can make us better writers.
I have just completed my first book. Given the seven-year journey it took to get from idea to completion, I am not sure I will ever write another. It was not the length of time or the multiple drafts that needed to be jettisoned which made me say this; it is simply the “eyes are now wide open” awareness of what it really takes to bring an idea percolating in consciousness all the way through to a finished product.
Like most things worth doing, there is a kind of naïveté when you first begin about how easy and blissful the journey will be. And then, when you actually get into learning how to do anything new, there are mostly big challenges to meet and obstacles to overcome. The capacity to persevere, at least for me, is only accessible if the inner urge is strong enough to overcome all the reasons to stop before the journey is complete.
Is it helpful to know a few things up front before you begin, which might prepare you for the journey ahead? Perhaps. And perhaps not. I say perhaps not because every person’s journey will be unique, as well as the challenges and obstacles to overcome. However, in case my own experience may assist others in at least being prepared for what may lie along your road, here are a few things I would share.
It Takes a Village
One of the big paradoxes of writing that I had to become very comfortable with was the image of writing as a solo experience. Oddly, it is both an incredibly private and solo undertaking, and it requires deeply embracing the fact that you are ultimately not writing for yourself—you are writing for others. Although what you may have to share has personal roots and inspiration, the impact and meaning-making of others who will read the book also matters.
Once the manuscript is well on its way, there will be obvious village members like copyeditors, proofreaders, and book cover designers. There will be various challenges with these aspects of your “support team” for sure. However, the more daunting challenges come much earlier in the process when you are trying to land a workable structure and coherent organizing flow of stories and material. Having the courage to share drafts and chapters with people you can trust to give you clear and creative reactions is no small thing.
I shared the first draft of my book with my father, a well-known and successful writer, as well as a good friend. Both of them read the draft with meticulous care—all 290 pages. And they wrote very thoughtful reactions being sure to praise the many aspects of the draft that had merit and also essentially to say to me, “Nice try. You can do better!” In the words of my father, “The main problem I see is the fact that I count 72 key concepts. That is too many.”
They were the first of many people who gave me reactions along the way. And every time I got reactions with creative suggestions for improving the manuscript, I had to go through a very real and specific cycle of “fuming!” It was pretty predictable: first anger and indignation, then denial, then a long list of reasons why they were wrong and the manuscript was close to perfect, then some long walk in the woods and finally sitting back down at my desk and taking a deep, honest look at what I had written.
In all the drafts and thinking about all the feedback I received—and some feedback so close to the print deadline I thought I would implode—the number of things I left as they were written I could count on one hand.
What I realized was that it truly takes a village to get out a good book. The final product is the result of many people offering their time, love, and careful attention, as well as their willingness to share their personal experiences directly. Writing has a very real element of “reciprocity”—a dance between my creative way of putting thoughts, feelings, stories, and ideas down on paper and then being willing to let them be changed and revised even as they are being captured. This dance required me to shift the stories I was holding inside myself constantly.
Be Prepared to Change Your Inner Story
The main story I needed to shift was the one that says, “If I am really in the flow and know what I am writing about, the words will come onto the page perfectly the very first time I write them.” Now, this may be true for some writers—and if it is, more power to them. In my case, it was not true, and I had to come to terms with the idea that much of the writing experience is rewriting, revising, and being willing to totally let go of material that doesn’t work or fit. Although it can seem like such a simple concept to embrace, in my case, I had a more emotional attachment to the story of “out it flows perfectly” than I knew.
The more I let go of this one story, the deeper I had to go in embracing the fact that writing, like any skill, is something you learn how to do. Like any skill, it takes time, dedication, and commitment to learn how to write well. Story number two: I would simply be a good writer immediately. I would not have to learn how to do it. I would not have to meet and be honest about the levels of my incompetence as I practiced the craft.
Anytime you take up a new activity, you will always have to face the challenges of being a beginner. And it seems the older we get, perhaps the harder it is to take up something totally new and deal with the emotions that arise when you notice you are not as good at that activity as you might have imagined. Relaxing with this truth is the first step. In my case, the second step had to do with—once again—reaching out to those who have more experience and learning from their wisdom. I hired a “book coach,” a dedicated person who would help me work through chapters and stuck places and contextual leaps, which made sense to me but were too giant for someone else.
My book coach was exceptional. And just like my experience of getting input on the full manuscript drafts, most all of the feedback from my coach required me to go through my mini-cycle of “fuming.” And with practice, my fuming cycles also got shorter and, therefore, more efficient too.
Holding the Thread of Your Own Voice
Although the support team is vital to producing a book of quality and substance, having deep confidence in your own voice and the importance of what you are trying to convey is paramount. Keeping ahold of the authenticity of voice while receiving and being able to pivot with the writing can be as challenging as it is to embrace the feedback. A kind of steadfast appreciation for yourself in the midst of being willing to let go and make changes is the dance. I suspect if one is meant to be a writer and does it as their primary livelihood, perhaps it gets easier to know and hear your voice. I would be curious to know. For those of us first-time writers, I think it is harder to find this balance. A part of the balance seems to be about timing.
Listening for when it is time to share and when the process is too delicate and nascent is important. There are times to “let it flow” and not have anyone else’s voice in your head or heart. And then there are times to “let it go,” taking in others’ suggestions and getting rid of or heavily trimming ideas or content which simply doesn’t work. All of this kind of bookwork requires emotional resilience. The ability to feel the emotions and yet not have your feelings, whatever they may be, cloud your ability to see your writing with clarity.
With this kind of emotional resilience, it gets easier to receive input and make changes such that your voice comes more to life rather than less. And then, when you come to a place where you truly love what is written and don’t want to change it in any way, it will be because there is no better way to describe something, not because you are stubborn or egotistical.
Having a sense of reciprocity with those helping make the book as accessible and valuable as possible is not for the “faint of heart.” It requires a lot of guts and courage and the willingness to persevere even when you might feel discouraged or disheartened.
If You Do Not Seem to Have a Choice, Go For It
Luckily, the book I ended up completing just would not let itself be shelved. For some reason, it kept demanding I keep going, not give up, and find a way through. The book is out in print, much to my amazement. As I said at the start of this article, if I somehow could have been stopped, I would have been. But this little book seemed to have a life of its own and a real desire to see the light of day, so onward ho I went. And the finished product did, indeed, take a village to come to completion. One thing I would offer as you contemplate this journey is to remember this truth and learn how to lean into it and embrace it rather than lean out and run away.
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