The biggest lie I ever told myself about writing is that I had to hurry up and do it. Every time I sat down and thought about writing — and I don’t know why I put that in the past tense, because I still do it — I would tell myself the get the words out, to finish the draft and revise the draft and get the work out there. Get it into print, get it in front of readers. I would tell myself that if I didn’t finish this story or publish that book as soon as possible, I was failing as a writer.
In terms of productivity, this lie has been a wonderful lie. I’m not as prolific as some, but I’m more prolific than you’d think, and many friends — writers and nonwriters alike — have marveled at how frequently I seem to publish. “Really?” I’ll always tell them. “To me it’s felt like ages.”
I’m a deeply impatient person, at least when it comes to myself and my work. I need to write down an idea the minute it comes to me, and I’m distracted unto uselessness until I can find a place and a few minutes to get that idea down. I feel like I need to finish a story almost as soon as I’ve started it, often with the ironic result that I’ll throw away and restart the thing several times because it keeps coming out worse than I imagine the final draft will be. If I’m writing a book, I’m working on the pitch in my head before I’ve even finished the manuscript, and I’ll pace my living room and wring my hands for months until someone either turns it down or, the two times this has happened so far, accepts it. When a story or a book gets rejected, I’ll daydream myself into a fury over what might have been, not because the rejection bothers me so much but because I was already imagining the thing in print, and any delay in that is maddening to me.
But this is all predicated on a lie. This is the realization I’ve had recently. I don’t really have to be in any hurry to do anything.
For years (and years and years), I’ve had the idea that there are great works hiding inside me somewhere, and if only I can find the right shadow on the surface of the pond, cast a line with the right flick of the wrist, feel the right tug, I can hook whatever it is down there and reel it to the surface. For years, I’ve always felt my best writing is down there somewhere, yet to emerge.
This is a stupid thing to think. Already some of my best writing has bobbed to the surface, sometimes because I found it but sometimes because it simply floated up and I was there to see it happen. My chapbook came together through years of hard work, but some of the stories in it seemed to have happened all on their own. My novel took me four years to figure out and another three to write, and I’m doing a final round of edits soon, but when I first had the idea to write it, it felt whole and ready for me to discover — distant and indistinct in the haze, but definite, waiting for me to cross the miles of time to reach it. My story “Lightning My Pilot,” a finalist in this year’s Million Writers Award, took me less than twenty-four hours to put on paper, but the pieces of it — the ideas and the potential of it — had been running through my head since my college days, some seventeen or eighteen years back.
The point isn’t that these pieces were easy. They weren’t, not by a long shot. They were grueling, and mind-numbing, and agonizing. I agonize over them still. No, the point is that I always believed they would be good. There was a confidence in them from the outset, and for some reason I can’t fully explain, I didn’t feel any crushing urgency about them. I knew they were good and I knew they would always be good, whether I was good enough yet to write them or not. So I left them until we both were ready, the stories and I, and then we met like old friends. Like an old couple. We came together, the words and I, and we understood each other the way my wife and I understand each other, because we’d always been there. We knew we could count on each other.
About a month ago, I wrote a post about my routine in writing, and I ended it by explaining that I don’t have a routine so much as I have confidence: “So I don’t think it’s really a matter of making time for the work you love,” I wrote. “I think it’s much more peaceful than that. It’s about accepting the time when you have it, and when you don’t have time, it’s about having confidence that the work will be there waiting for you.”
Which is easy to write when I’m writing about routine. But there’s still that nagging issue of the “great” work, the extraordinary writing that is so much more than routine. That’s the work I was still anxious about. That requires a different level of confidence.
This all came back to the surface — this anxiety, this yearning to write great things and to do so in a damned hurry — after my wife and I watched Spike Jonze’s Her this weekend. It’s a stunning film, and I highly, highly recommend it, but that’s not what this is about. This is about me wanting to write something like that, something that good, and wishing I’d done so already. And so while I was wrestling with that, I was reading everything I could find about the film, which is to say, the bits and bobs on the movie’s IMDB page. I reread some of the quotes from the film. And I’m not going to give away the movie, but there’s a line at the end, a conversation between the protagonist and his operating system girlfriend, that is about patience and emotional discovery, about becoming who we are. And I reread those lines several times, and I replayed those scenes in my head, late at night, downstairs at my dining table in the dim overhead light. And I felt this sudden release.
I won’t call it “epiphany,” or “revelation.” Not really. It wasn’t any insight I gained. It was more an idea I was letting go of. It felt more like exhaling. And I realized, all the great things I might ever write, they’re there. Or they’re not there. But I’m not going to conjure them out of nothing, and I’m not going to grab them by the wrist and drag them screaming into the world. This writing I do — the kind of writing I want to do — it isn’t about forging something in a crucible or hammering it out on a hissing anvil. It’s a relationship. Me and the words, old friends that we are. I just need to spend time with them, writing and writing and writing, putting in the time and the effort, and some days will be ordinary and some days will be frankly shitty. But some days will be beautiful. Magic days where everything is going right and everything comes together, and then the great writing will be there. As long as I’m present for it, it’ll be there.
And there was no more anxiety. There in the dim late night at the dining table, I stopped worrying about the writing. I got a cold glass of water. I went upstairs to bed. It would all be okay. I’ll still feel the urgency, I’ll still want to write as often as I have time for, and I know there will still be times when I’ll be pacing in front of the mailbox or refreshing my email every five minutes, anxious for replies about a submission or thinking ahead three steps in a draft, trying to get to the good stuff. But there’s a difference between urgency and desperation, between excitement and worry. And I know now that the writing and I? We’re going to be just fine.
There’s no need to hurry any of this.
* The title of this post is a line from the movie Her. Don’t worry — it doesn’t give anything away.