#2: Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself

Hi Story Nurse,

So, I’ve been “working” on a novel for a couple years now. Which is to say, I’ve written around ten pages and haven’t been able to force myself to do any more, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success writing short stories, but this novel just intimidates me. I’m not sure why, but it does—plotting and keeping track of all the details and characters at such length is kind of intimidating.

I think that part of the reason is that this novel is set during and around the Holocaust, and I’m terrified of the research I’ll have to do. I have plenty of books, I know where to find more, but the prospect of reading about all that suffering and horror… well, I haven’t been able to sit down and make myself do it. But nor do I want to start writing when I am ill-informed, because it’s important to me to get this right and not mess it up.

Do you have any tips on how to get myself to work on this novel, write and do the research? I can go into more detail about the plot if that would help. And I’ve researched terrible things before, I’m not sure why I have a block on doing this.

—EG (she/her)

Dear EG,

This sounds really hard. Really, really hard. I think just about any novelist would find it intimidating and difficult to embark on a book-length project and have to do a ton of research and spend both the research and the writing immersed in a time of horrors and feel tremendous moral responsibility for conveying history accurately in a work of fiction. All the more so if you have a personal connection to the Holocaust or reason for writing about it. You don’t say whether this is your first novel, but if it is, that’s going to add to the feeling of intimidation; just about every debut novelist feels that way when starting out.

If you were using words like “terrified” and “intimidating” and “how to get myself to do this” about your relationship with a person, that would suggest that the person was in some position of power over you, and was abusing that power to make you do things you don’t want to do. But there’s no one involved here except you and you. Specifically, there’s writer-you, the person who’s confronting a very daunting project, and idealist-you, the person who thought this would be a great idea for a novel. Idealist-you has set writer-you up to have a hard time. Writer-you is not happy about that at all. And when you’re wrestling with yourself, it’s very easy to wind up in a stalemate, also known as being blocked or stuck. You don’t want to give up on the project, because it means a lot to you. But you don’t want to proceed, because it’s painful and difficult and also maybe because you’re mad at yourself for setting yourself a painful difficult task. So you sit there and look at those ten pages and wonder what’s wrong.

Step back from the work itself for a moment and see if you can reintegrate those two aspects of yourself: the one who really wants to make this specific project happen, and the one who recognizes that making it happen will be challenging. How can you harness those parts to work in tandem? When you’re stuck on how hard the research and the writing are, can you power yourself with your passion for the project? When the details of the misery overwhelm you, can you restore yourself by remembering how much value this book will bring to its readers and the world? When writer-you droops at the keyboard, can idealist-you give writer-you a great big hug or wave some pompoms or remind you to take a break for a mug of tea and some cute animal pictures? (I like turtles, personally. They’re so calming.)

Take a good long look at why you want this book to exist, and to be written by you. I suspect the answer is complex, and it may take you some time to really grasp it and distill it into something you can write on a card and tack up over your monitor or chant to yourself when the going gets tough. But unless you know the answer to “Why should I put myself through the hell of writing this book?” you’re not going to do it.

That said, you’re always allowed to decide that now is not the time for this book. Every project requires several kinds of cost/benefit analysis, and evaluating your emotional and psychological costs and benefits is as crucial to the project’s success as making sure you have enough time to write and the writing tools you need and the access to research materials and so on. If writer-self wrestles idealist-self to the ground and says “NO I AM NOT DOING THIS RIGHT NOW,” that’s okay. Idealist-self may be sad about it, but if this isn’t the right project for you, now or ever, then that’s the truth of it and you’ll be much happier in the long run if you accept that truth and find something new to work on, maybe something that hits some of the same moral notes while demanding a little less of you. I’m not advising you to give up. I am advising you to listen to yourself, and not dismiss your feelings of fear and distress out of hand.

If you’ve gone through this checking-in process and you’re more committed to the project than ever, great! That commitment itself will make it easier for you to sit down at the desk and get to work. The next step is to make sure you have a relief valve. Write lighthearted short stories, or do yoga, or take your dog for a walk in the park—whatever restores you. Explicitly build time for it into your schedule. You simply can’t stay immersed in the Holocaust for months upon months of research and writing without breaks. Also, be generous with the amount of time you allot for both researching and writing; don’t create artificial deadlines unless you absolutely need them for motivation, and if you do, make them longer than you think you need. It’s really important to remember that you aren’t required to maximize your own suffering in order to write about the suffering of others. This project is going to be emotionally difficult and technically challenging no matter what, so go as easy on yourself as possible.

Speaking of technical challenges, if you’re running into some of those, see if you can find a less emotionally intense writing project on which to develop the skills you need for this one. This can serve the relief-valve purpose, too. I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise. Whenever the first book gets too emotionally overwhelming, I turn to the second one. Whenever I learn something from working on the second book, I take it back to the first one. Having a space in which I feel more comfortable making mistakes and fumbling around, where I’m less emotionally invested in the outcome, serves the same purpose as an actor’s rehearsal or a gymnast’s training: when I return to the intense high-pressure project, I’m more skilled and more confident, which lets me withstand the pressure and feel good about living up to the challenge I’ve set myself. My progress on both books is slow, but until I started working on the second one alongside the first, my progress on the first was nearly nonexistent. Slow is much, much better than nothing.

Finally, remember that you are not alone in feeling both inspired by your brilliant idea and daunted by having to turn your brilliant idea into a readable work of fiction. I cherish this chart created by author Maureen McHugh:

a chart showing the writer's mood starting at "This is the greatest idea I've EVER had," plummeting down to "dark night of the soul," and gradually coming back up to "it's done and it sucks but not as bad as I thought"

 

If you have a community of writers, lean on them for support. Even if they haven’t embarked on a project that’s quite as challenging, or that’s challenging in the same way, they’ll understand what you’re going through, and they’ll cheer you on.

To directly answer your question, I can’t tell you how to get yourself to work on this novel. But I hope that by examining your reasons for doing it, committing to giving it a shot, giving yourself the best possible environment to do it in, and finding lower-pressure ways to develop the skills you need for it, you’ll find yourself wanting to work on it, even when it’s hard. And that’s by far the most reliable recipe for getting a book to happen.

All best wishes for this and your future projects!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#2: Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself

  1. This describes how I feel about so many book projects, where I simultaneously feel like I have an important piece of my own history and knowledge to process and show to other people, but the obligation I feel to that part of my life and the place that inspired it to do really thorough and sensitive research and write something that does it justice results in me completely freezing up. (e.g. I wrote 40,000 of a manuscript based on my own experiences and knowledge from a three-month trip I took in Ireland in November 2015, and then said to myself, “For this book that I want to set in 1990, I should really research the history of Ireland back to prehistoric times.”)

    I feel like another aspect of this — maybe — is accepting that you will never produce a perfect project, or a book that is as beautiful and wonderful as it was when you first conceived the idea. I find the imagined disappointment of my friends and family this powerful motivating force to not show anyone (outside a small group of people who have consistently shown themselves to be tolerant and diplomatic) my fiction, ever, or to put it out into the world in really secretive ways (I very much suffer from the idea that “if it’s good enough, you should never have to tell anyone about it, ever. The internet will magically deliver those peeps unto your door.”) A large part of that is being very, very afraid to not do justice to the people and the places I want to write about.

    I haven’t gotten over myself (I probably never will) but there’s something sort of freeing about saying: Yes, I will do the best I can to research and refine and edit, but there is a very good chance that I will never be happy with the final product, and there is a very good chance that there will be people who are disappointed and angry with the thing I made, even people I really care about. That information is valuable, and may give you guidance about how to improve or mistakes to avoid, but it’s not actually a referendum on whether you should keep writing and trying to tell difficult stories that are important to you. It sounds weird to say “embrace your inevitable frustration, and embrace your potential or unlikely failure,” but I find that takes some of the edge off the fear.

    Like

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