Feedback came in on my UNINVITED screenplay and it’s very encouraging. One of the ways my life (and writing) has changed in recent years is that the time between first conception of project and handing-in of project to someone who can point out what I’ve done wrong continues to shrink….When I was a little kid, I would dash something off and wave it in someone’s face and bat my eyes and wait for praise, but that was only because I didn’t know any better, and little kids have an ‘if it’s not about me, then it oughtta be’ ego roughly the size of the Chrysler building*.
I like to mull things over. I’m a muller. I like to carry something around in my head for a long time before working on it, or reworking it. I believed that if I didn’t give something all that quiet mulling time, then it wasn’t worth showing anyone, couldn’t possibly be any good. What I’m realizing now is that there’s some superstitious, procrastinating, self-protective voodoo at work there — the longer I keep something to myself doesn’t actually mean that I’m smoothing all the problems away, just means I’m putting off the trauma of having all its flaws and weaknesses pointed out in a cool objective voice which isn’t mine. It’s a strange thing to think about because I don’t fear constructive criticism in and of itself, which is what you rely on to become good enough and then better than good enough, and I enjoy revising. (I find first-draft writing bloody difficult and draining.)
I suspect it’s some psych thing left over from university days — I needed to maintain an A average or else I’d lose my scholarship, and if I lost my scholarship I’d have to drop out of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, a place I dearly loved, and figure out a much less costly alternative. I kept that A through all 4 years, but not by much, which meant I always felt stressed and vulnerable. If a paper came back with a B or, God forbid, something worse, I’d have to go into an empty classroom and sit in the dark and hyperventilate for twenty minutes. It’s odd to look back on this now, from a much wider, deeper perspective — hundreds of thousands were getting slaughtered in Rwanda and I was all atwitter over a B in abnormal psych? Get bent. But as irrational as it was, there was the sense that everytime a paper came back to me, I wasn’t just having my work evaluated, I was in danger of having my identity wiped out, I was in danger of being obliterated. I didn’t realize that then, of course — if I had, I would have been able to recognize the absurdity, laugh it off and lighten up and handle the load a lot better. But I had neither the insight or the maturity.
So I carried that over into my fiction-writing. When people ask me how long it took me to write BLOODANGEL and I say “Three years,” they nod to themselves and look satisfied, because there’s this idea out there that if a novel has a chance of being any good, it has to have spent years and years in the making. Which makes Stephen King — and his prolific output — an even easier target, makes us think Of course we don’t have to take him seriously because he’s just a commercial hack, he churns this stuff out and complicates our reaction to someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who also just ‘churns this stuff out’ amassing a staggering tower of work and yet, and yet, she’s a literary writer. She teaches at Princeton. She wins awards. She’s hailed by some as one of our “greatest living writers”. So if writing ‘quickly’** means writing crappily, what in the space-time continuum makes someone like JCO even possible?
I’ll cut my twentysomething self some slack here because I was still growing along with the book — still developing as a person and a writer in order to finish the kind of book I wanted it to be — but even then I knew I wasn’t as disciplined as I should have been. And I hoarded. I mulled. I put off the receiving of criticism. I was afraid to bite the bullet — always worse in anticipation then reality — and get on with it. This is what I wish to learn to do now, with style and ease:
Bite the bullet. Get on with it.
*Not to mention, there’s a bit of a dancing-dog element to children who write poetry and stories in their own time: teachers are thrilled to see it done at all.
** This can just mean writing a little bit every day. Three pages a day doesn’t seem like a lot, but one day you wake up and it’s a novel.