From Electric Lit:
In 2010, I was three years into writing my linked story collection when I took my first trip to Vermont to attend a writers’ conference. My workshop was a group of seven that included our instructor, Ellen Lesser. With a couch and cushioned chairs set in an oval everyone talked around me and about my story. I remained “in the box” (that is, not allowed to speak) during my classmates’ deliberations and discussions. My only additions were steady nods or pursed lips. Once I was allowed to speak, I thanked them, but bemoaned the fact that this particular piece in my collection was taking a long time. Ellen crossed her legs and met my eyes. She tucked a salt and pepper lock behind her ear and said in a kind and confident tone, “You’re acting as if writing should be an efficient process, Jennifer. It’s not.”
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Six years later, I returned from yet another conference where I workshopped another story in this same collection. The instructor in this case, Tayari Jones, recognized the character, having seen a previous iteration of a story a few years earlier. Like Ellen, she gave me the tough love stare and asked, “What’s taking so long?” I had no answer.
Where Ellen’s comment attempted to help me reconcile the writing process. Tayari’s question pushed me to try and understand my process. I was unable to pinpoint my reasons — personal, professional, creative — for not finishing, but I also had a hard time accepting that the process is the process. Ellen’s words rang as a kind of “it is what it is” lament that has no finite answer or fix. For many of us we’re still figuring out “our process.” We tinker with methods of productivity as “process.” “Process” is not always efficient nor pretty.
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A popular post on Electric Literature is an infographic of how long it took authors to write their most famous novels. The timing ranges from 2.5 days for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to 16 years for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.I’m unsure if these metrics provided relief or added anxiety. Did this mean that I was right on track because Victor Hugo needed 12 years in the 1800s to finish an epic novel, or that I was way behind schedule compared to the 4 years it took Audrey Niffenegger to produce The Time Traveler’s Wife? Pulitzer prize winner Donna Tartt, a notably reclusive writer, seems to publish a novel every 10 years. Another Pulitzer winner, Junot Díaz, has called himself a “slow writer,” too. Slow doesn’t keep the words from coming, yet is it a fair measurement? And who, exactly, determines what “slow” means when it comes to the writing process? Is it us writers, the business, public expectation, or the characters and stories that need time to develop?
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The pressures of perfection make it appealing to click away from my Word document and open a web browser. It’s kind of masochistic, wondering why I’m not finished with a particular project while at the same time baking a bundt cake, editing someone else’s work, checking email I checked three minutes ago, and going on social media using the hashtag #amwriting to relay my progress even though we all know I’m not writing in that moment. Once I begin to question the words on the page, a scene’s progression, and/or my overall concept, it’s a brief reprieve to go for a bike ride rather than tackle the problem at hand. The pressure of being perfect as an artist in a world full of artists, residing in one of the most artistic cities in the world, living with characters for almost a decade, has me throw up my hands and say “I put in enough time, right?” before I log onto Twitter. (#TheStruggleIsReal.) It leads me to settle in my chaise with a book and be optimistic that I won’t be as hard on myself for the time not spent on the work. The pressure has me hope that the distance I felt growing between myself and the words on the screen isn’t as broad as I perceive it to be.
Link to the rest at Electric Lit