This month, the question posed in our Writers Ask Writers blog series came from one of Annabel Smith’s readers: How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?
Becoming discouraged during the course of writing can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, for me, it’s because the editor who sits on my shoulder, who has to be levered off with whatever sharp stick I can find, refuses to go and won’t be silenced, and the air is filled with waspish, deflating questions like So what?
Discouragement is likely to result in despair and gloom. General prickliness in response to everyday questions. Sometimes a kind of creative paralysis. Extreme anxiety. But with the exception of one abandoned novel many years ago, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of interest.
One of the reasons I did lose interest in that long abandoned novel is that, as a neophyte knowing nothing, I read everything, and everything seemed to suggest you needed things like a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, and a 20-page back-story for every character, and a clear vision of what you were wanting to say before you started. Well, I tried that, and I lost everything: momentum, enthusiasm, motivation.
It wasn’t until I went to a workshop in 2000 presented by Australian novelist Sue Woolfe that I discovered that there are many ways to write a novel. The workshop was attended by several experienced writers I admired and they seemed to be grappling with the same things that I was. Sue Woolfe’s startling proposition, a proposition that she and Kate Grenville also put forward in their edited collection Making stories: how ten Australian novels were written, was that it was OK not to plan, not to know. That in fact, not planning and not knowing could be a process in itself. I discovered there were many novelists who worked this way, finding their way as they went, through the writing itself, drawing on that well of ideas, research, thinking and wondering that compelled them to begin, carrying (to appropriate Adrienne Rich’s metaphor in ‘Diving into the wreck’) a knife, a camera, a book of myths. And so evolved the sketchy, spidery process I now use.
This way of working has its difficulties.
It is not certain, and it is not comfortable. And it is another of the reasons why discouragement can set in.
I’m still working out what is the best way, for me, of dealing with this—I try different strategies, and the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling. But I do have a few mantras that help me keep the faith:
‘There is no way to be a writer and be comfortable.’—Eva Sallis (Hornung), Text, 3 (2), 1999
‘Trust that the story is there.’—author unknown
‘Mastery [of the art of writing] is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.’—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (2001)
As for comfort along the way, I put my faith in this:
To read how my writer friends deal with discouragement, click on the links below. It’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one to run into a brick wall from time to time! If you have some strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear about them.
Dawn Barker: That is the reason I write: when I feel like the project is going nowhere, something happens that starts it all again: the thrill, the excitement when you know that you can write something that might just work.—Read more here
Emma Chapman: … it’s easy, after coming through a difficult patch, to look back on it and be glad it happened. To see the positive with hindsight. But it’s not so easy when you are in the thick of one, unable to see the other end.—Read more here
Sara Foster: One of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far is not to fear discouragement when I am writing. A stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson … —Read more here
Natasha Lester: A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me a whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time …— Read more here
Annabel Smith: … some years ago I became strangely addicted to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Remember the lifelines? Well, my husband, Jonathan Franzen and Ferris Bueller have all provided potential solutions to my writing dilemmas; they’ve been my lifelines.— Read more here