An aspiring writer recently shared this with me:
“My story looks so alive and brilliant in my head. But as soon as I write it, the story falls flat. And then I feel like a fraud. I wonder why I continue to spend so much time at something I’m obviously so bad at.”
Ever feel that way?
You write something in a rush of inspiration. Then you read it and think,
“That’s not what I meant to say. That’s not even close to what I see in my mind.”
“This whole thing is contrived and boring.”
“My story’s no good.”
“I’m no good.”
“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”
First, let me assure you, you’re not alone.
The journey from imagination to page is inherently fraught with what Twyla Tharp calls, “divine dissatisfaction.”
In the theater of our mind, our story is a multi-dimensional, techno-color, high-def world teaming with life. But inevitably, in our early attempts to transfer that vision onto the page, that world disintegrates.
It’s where a lot of writers get lost.
Or stop writing altogether.
But the truth is, every writer worth his or her salt grapples with this very same struggle.
Listen to how Ann Patchett describes her writing process.
“This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. I reach and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”
That despair didn’t stop her from authoring 9 books, including Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, and The Magician’s Assistant.
And you know what? She wrestles with the same self doubt and frustration every time she sits down to write something new.
Every single time.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor and blogger for The Atlantic, says the writing process is like trying to transfer a piece of music you hear in your head to the blank page.
And so you fail.
He believes the entire writing process is all about failure – failing over and over again.
So, what do writers like Ann Patchett and Ta-Nehisi Coates do to push through the inevitable failure of their works in progress?
How do they close the chasm between their vision and its ultimate expression?
They keep showing up to the page. They work with and through their resistance.
They continue honing their craft through deliberate, focused practice.
They revise. Over and over. Until the music on the page gets closer to the music in their head.
There’s no mystery to this.
To elevate your writing to the brilliance of your imagination, you need to develop the muscle of perseverance, to keep learning and practicing your craft.
And you need to be kinder to yourself.
In my next post, I’m going to show you some of the most common misconceptions that keep writers from bringing their work to the finish line, and new ways to think about creativity, about revision, about your own potential to create mesmerizing stories.
Just know the struggle to go from imagination to page is universal. It isn’t proof of your failure. It’s leading you to your next breakthrough.
P.S. Enrollment for Fall writing classes in Phoenicia, New York is now open! You can find all the details here.