On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

I have violated my New Year’s Resolution. I erased a third of the novel. Irrevocably. I erased it on my computer, from the emailed copy I sent to myself, from Dropbox, from my husband’s email. Everywhere. Or so I thought.

I had a really good reason for doing this – largely, the general sucky, lousy prose – but I am regretting it now. I mean, I was. More on that in a minute.

There is a thing that can happen in the quiet of the office space. By the clicking of the keys or the scritching of the pen on the paper. That little, itchy, insinuating voice that creeps along the neck and down the spine. It’s bad breath tickles the ear. It has sticky fingers and a grubby face and hair like thistledown.

Really? the voice says.

That’s what you wrote?

No one could possibly like this.

Now, let’s be honest. The voice wasn’t wrong. The pages – eighty of them in all – were pretty crappy. However, the promises that the voice insisted were true – that my agent will never want to speak to me again, and that my editor will cancel my current book because good god what was I thinking, and that booksellers and librarians will, en masse, remove my book from the shelves and throw them in the garbage, and that my husband and children will disown me and that I will never write again, and really, why would I – well. Those are probably not true.

So I selected the last third of the book. And I erased it. And I stared at the screen. For a long time.

And then I did what many of us do when we are facing something difficult. I avoided.

I am an expert avoider. I could get an Olympic medal in Avoidance. Wait. Do they have those? I hope so, because that would be awesome.

Now, in my past, this period of avoidance has been prolonged and deep. Less so now. Now, at least I have learned to recognize avoidant behaviors and resistant behaviors. Now I have learned the importance of muddling through.

For me, muddling through means sometimes working on other things. Yesterday, for example, I was writing a scene that was emotionally exhausting and painful. To keep me moving, and keep me sane, I turned on a timer and opened another document. Twenty minutes working on the scene, twenty minutes writing a goofy, sexy, satirical story about Helen of Troy growing up – ugly and lonely – in that tower with her randy mom and her slutty dad. And it was super fun. I probably will never publish it, but that’s okay, because it got me through that scene – and that chapter.

Another thing that helps me muddle through is to be – shall we say – non monogamous – in my work habits. The book I’m working on was originally longhand, but the version on my computer is so utterly divorced from the original draft, that I can’t even use it anymore. Which means I am stuck on the computer – not a happy place for me. So I have another novel – that I might be finishing today, actually. And that’s totally longhand. And it’s completely different from the more serious novel that I’m currently married to. It’s funny and irreverent and biting. It’s a total departure from everything I’ve ever done. And – like most affairs, I’m told – it gives me the shivers just to touch it. Just to hold it close. But working on both projects allows me to keep both stories fresh, whole, and energized. It allows me to be fully present in both, because neither have gotten stale.

Also: I have a stack of notecards in my desk drawer upon which I write scene outlines, lovely sentences, story ideas, or whole paragraphs. I save these for later.

Also: I wrote a novella – something Not For Children. It poured out of me at Christmas time, and waits, quietly, while I decide what to do with it.

Also: I am revising two Broken Novels to see if I can un-break them. Maybe I can. Maybe I can’t. But the work itself is satisfying. It is filled with notes in margins in red pen and handwritten pages on looseleaf stuck into the binder. Binders full of words. It is a beautiful thing.

There is a theme here. Did you notice it?

Resistance happens to all of us. Avoidance happens to all of us. The only cure for writer’s block is writing. The only cure for bad writing is more writing. The only cure for those nasty voices that show up, unbidden, in our brains, is to write our way to the other side. Whatever project. Whatever it takes.

I discovered that the pages I erased weren’t entirely erased at all. Google Drive. I had forgotten I had done it. I was there last weekend looking for something else, and my novel winked back at me – beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t erase it. I decided to leave it there, untouched, and will continue on my way until I reach the end on this side. Then I will compare the two. It’s only fair.

Today, I have another tough scene to tackle. And I will tackle it. Today, I have a composition notebook that will have new pages with jokes and witches and perhaps a kid with a checkered past saving the day. Or maybe the witch will save him. I haven’t decided yet. Today, I will put more words in the short story about memory and I will fuss a bit more on the Lake Erie novel with shape-shifting dog-men.

Today, I will write words. I will not resist. And I will muddle through.

But first, I will turn on Freedom. Because, good god. The internets, man. So shiny. So devious. In the meantime, I am curious about you folks. How do you muddle through? How do you break down your resistance and get work on the page? How do you quell those ugly voices and tell them to shut up and be done with it? I am terribly curious.



5 thoughts on “On Avoidance, Resistance, and Muddling Through

  1. I do almost the same thing as what you’ve described, from erasing huge chunks of novel to avoiding to the story non-monogomy. I usually have two to three stories I work on in a day because I know that I’m bound to get stuck on one. I use Freedom from the moment I sit down at my computer too, I call it a gift from the post-typewriter gods.

    But those voices! Gah, the voices! I completely understand. Mine don’t speak up until I’ve finished a story and am planning to send it off in search of an agent. I actually have a fantasy novel that I have pulled out of the search because the voices have been telling me that it probably sounds like a high school novel and I still have too much to learn and good god, look at all those holes in your lovely plot. How could I possibly send that to people to read?? And so on… I wish I could say that I have found a way to contend with these voices but I haven’t (I’ve told them to shut up and be done with it but they just let out amused laughs), and the fantasy novel is still sitting there feeling rejected, halfway through another massive revision. So all I can say is good luck and you’re not alone!

  2. I am so right there with you. I’m working on this story and its got a gold rush 750 meters under the surface of the ocean, its got underwater topo maps with names added all over them, its got places like the bar at Quiencey’s Pressure with an old one-eyed bartender named Mad Jack, its got 1000 words on the many ways you can die, or be bored. But what it doesn’t have is a story I like. Oh I have an outline (several actually. I’ve started 5 different stories down there), but putting words to it is excruciatingly slow. Painfully slow. The term self-flagellation comes to mind. And every time I go back over the next day to read what I’ve written I HATE, HATE, HATE it. Which is why I’ve started 5 different stories.

    And I jump at every distraction (thank you internet) so I don’t have to look at it. Do you have any idea how many stupid videos I’ve watched in the last week?

    Frankly I’ve never had a story fight me so much. Usually when one gets like this I just give up, and move onto something easier. This time I’ve decided to try fighting against the resistance, and see what that gets me. Your distraction ideas are good ones, I think I’ll steal that from you, if you don’t mind. But what gets me through the day is something I learned a long time ago from the day job, and that is the mantra, “trust in the process.” There is a story inside, and I can feel it wanting to come out, its just not going to be a pretty birth. Instead of a bright shiny hospital with my wife taking video, and happy nurses in attendance, this story is going to be born in a war zone, on a cold and dirty floor, with bullets flying all around, and the sickening dread of feeling a puddle of my own warm blood wick up my back side. And I know deep down in my bones that the one central idea that this story needs to sing might come two years after the story is done, because yes the process is sometimes like that.

    But what else are you going to do? I’m a writer. I write. Near as I can tell its not something you control, its something you do.

  3. Once, I literally torched six binders of notes and outlines, a portfolio of short stories and poems, one complete novel, and four screenplays. To this day I still don’t know how I really feel about that moment when utter destruction sounded like a great idea. I din’t do it because I felt that the works were all that inferior, though some were hack-dribblings at best, I did it for a whole different reason. I look back on it as an event of, it is what it is, and truly have no remorse about it; in fact it was a little liberating.

    I have over the years have noticed that a great deal of that work has re-manifested itself back into my writing again. We are always haunted by our own words. So, today I’ll write around 500-1000 words today, that may or may not end up in the rubbish bin.

  4. My all time absolutely most productive way of tricking myself into working effectively is to think of all the things that I am avoiding by doing my work. I could be cleaning the house. I could be writing out bills. I could be filling out tax forms. I could be shoveling snow. I could be throwing a load of laundry in. But, instead, I have been given a gift from the universe to be able to sit for 8 to 10 hours each day with uninterrupted concentration and pursue one of my passions.

    My second most effective technique is similar to your avoidance strategy. I try make sure that I have several levels of work available (purely creative, mechanical, memory, high level thinking, new material, etc). Then, no matter what kind of a mood that I am in, there is productive work to do that fills that mental or physical place.

    Lastly, in past several years I have discovered the power of motivational sayings, music, and shows. My computer and work materials are now loaded with sayings that I find particularly encouraging. “Just one more” “If not now, when?” “You can do this, you did it before.” I used to dismiss this kind of stuff for being artificial, but now I find that it can really help to get me out of bad mental places. Somehow, when I was younger, I didn’t need any encouragement. But, I can get back to that fearless “me against the world” with just a little help.

    I am not at all a television watcher, or a sports fan, but I am tremendously inspired when I turn on the Olympics and watch young people pursuing their dreams. Or watch an episode of Project Runway. Or watch an episode of Glee for that matter. Or watch The Secret Garden for the 100th time. All of these things will trick me back into my motivated passionate dreamer place. And shut the cynic up.

  5. After finishing my first novel, my general attitude towards subsequent work has – slowly but surely – become more relaxed. Not to say that the actual work itself has gotten any easier, and neither do I want to suggest that I’ve resolved to rest on my laurels – paltry as they are, at this stage. Rather, I’ve become okay with the idea of not having to write every single day, or not hashing out a number of words by a set period of time. This means that the actual process itself has become a case of muddling through – but muddling through by itself, without any ancillary demons shouting “WHY ARE YOU NOT WRITING MORE, WHY ARE YOU NOT WRITING FASTER?” Now I try to identify what the story needs, and I work on it accordingly.
    So that experience has certainly helped, and it feels like an important step. Apart from that, my ways of perservering and remaining excited about an ongoing project more or less mirror your own. I will take up other projects, even in other media (theatre, comic book) which, perhaps significantly, tend to be collaborative. I found collaboration particularly welcome after I had finished the novel; it’s such a claustrophobic-headspacey experience that airing out your brain to make space for someone else’s imagination apart from your own just feels tremendously liberating.

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