Sunday, January 20, 2019

Nancy Stohlman on the Biggest Mistake Writers Make

In the 37th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Nancy Stohlman, author of Madame Velvet's Cabaret of Oddities (Big Table Publishing), lays out the stages of writing.

It’s not what you think.

The biggest mistake writers make? Not knowing which stage of the writing process they’re in.

We confuse writing with editing, we confuse editing with publication, we show work to others before it’s ready, we hoard work that is ready, afraid of rejection. Realizing which stage of the process you’re in—and more importantly what your work needs at that phase—is crucial.

Stage One: Creative Play

Regardless of genre, true creativity always begins as play. It’s that time of pure inspiration, when your ideas are new and fragile, where risks are taken, mistakes are made and become discoveries. This creative honeymoon is a time of sweetness and acceptance, a private time between you and your work and also when it needs the most protection—it’s raw, vulnerable, full of potential, beautiful to us but the wings aren’t dry yet.

So it’s the worst time to get feedback. The work isn’t ready for scrutiny and neither is the author. But we’ll do it anyway: We throw the baby into the pool thinking it can swim; we invite the paparazzi in before we’re even dressed. We show the world before we’re ready for their reaction, and like a negative exposed to light, all those budding ideas can fade away in front of our eyes.

And then the writer gives up or gets blocked and doesn’t know why.

Stage Two: Puberty

This the true transformation of your work, the metamorphosis, when it discovers itself. The child gets rashes of acne, stretch marks, growing pains, hair in weird places. Sometimes they don’t seem like your baby at all—and they’re not.

We must not love our work too much at this stage, but we must love it enough to be willing to cut it open and lay it all out like a disassembled engine. It’s also the right time to bring in a trusted audience for feedback. The audience should be midwives, peers, teachers, and mentors—those who can tell you your sunglasses are on your head and point out things in your work you’ve become blind to.

The biggest mistake most writers make in this phase? Skipping it.

Yes, because we fear this re-visioning process, we can keep our stories hidden in the dark. But this crucible is where the real magic happens, where your work truly matures.

I recommend working in a new file during this phase. Save that original draft in a separate file and do the surgery elsewhere, far away from the baby you love.

Stage Three: Grown Adult Living in the Basement

And then there’s the third phase, after the honeymoon, after puberty: the grown adult living in the basement phase. This is when we’ve worked on something until it’s done but we can’t let it go. It’s over-gestated, rotting—we can ruin it and stymie our creativity if we stay there too long.

We can get stuck in this phase for lots of good reasons. First, there is the very real possibility of rejection. This creation you’ve worked so hard on is now going to have to make it in the world without you. So, like overprotective parents, we lock it up in the basement “for its own protection.”

There’s another reason we keep our work hostage—we’d rather stay in the “editing” phase indefinitely than face the finality of finishing. Finishing would mean returning the blank page again, and that’s also scary.

But knowing when something is finished is just as important as any other part of the process. When the child is grown, buy them a suitcase. Maybe we let it go and it’s published and that’s fantastic. And maybe it goes nowhere and that’s okay too. But we must move forward.

Staying stuck in any phase robs us of our growth as writers. All creations have their own cycles, their own lifespans and their own destinies. Whatever its destiny, a writer needs to lead it to the ocean, put it in a bottle and set it adrift.

And then, with a fresh mind, turn to Creative Play once again.