second draft blues

I have a serious case of the second draft blues.

Okay, not blues – maybe what I have is more accurately described as a phobia. A second-draft-induced full-on panic attack. Second draft terror.

How do you write a second draft? How do you do it? Seriously, could someone on the internet somewhere have written an actually helpful guide to tackling this monster? A specific, non-vague, step by step list of instructions? Yeah, that’d be great. I guess writing doesn’t really work like that – no one else can write you a ten-point plan for how to write your novel – but man, it’d be so awesome if it did.

Part of why I am so fearful of this next novelling step is that I have never taken it before. I am the first draft queen. I can free write like a champ. I have notebook upon notebook dedicated to those initial, glorious bursts of inspiration, those moments when even the texture and motion of the ink on the page is the stuff of poetry. But when it comes to second drafts my experience is limited to much, much shorter works – reviews, essays, flash fiction. I have no idea how to take on a 50k manuscript and it is freaking me out.

truman capote

This picture of Truman Capote comes up when you Google image search ‘frustrated writer.’

Freaking out for me means watching Gilmore Girls and Harry Potter for the twenty-millionth time and starting another novel and letting that big hulking black folder containing my manuscript intimidate me into inaction. Occasionally I treat my unsuspecting friends and acquaintances to a babbling, hyperactive rant when they ask me how my novel is going (a side effect of not wanting to lie and say, ‘Great!’ and also of having no filter when it comes to my emotions).

Does anyone have any advice? I will take book recommendations, article links, anything. Just don’t be vague.

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slump

blue

Slump. Slumped over. Going through a slump. Slump. Some lump. Lump. Lumbering, laboured, lagging.

People often speak of ‘going through a slump,’ an expression I always picture in the same way: a cartoon of a tired, defeated business man, in a dark suit, with cartoon lines under his eyes. He was walking on a sunny street a moment ago, with a straight spine and a smile on his face; but as he passes into shadow his shoulders droop in time with the corners of his sad mouth. I am going through a slump. I am walking down a dim, grey street. (I am recycling bad metaphors. I can’t help it.)

I am going through a slump. Actually, I am going through several kinds of slumps all at once. I am going through a reading slump; after a productive year in which I have read 50 books, I suddenly find myself bored and irritated by everything I pick up. I am going through a writing slump; everything I put on the page seems self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring, nothing like what it was in my head a few moments ago. I had a better opening line for this piece that had scurried away before my word processing program could be fucked to load. (Fuck you, technology.) I cannot even write letters to my friends, even though I want to. I cannot write replies to their texts, even though I want to.

I am going through a work slump; at my six-month performance review it was noted that I seemed less enthusiastic about my work. It is hard to be enthusiastic about my work. Six months in I have gotten to the point where I am no longer learning anything new, and my tasks have become mind-numbingly repetitive and frustratingly fiddly. There is nothing creative in my job, or not enough of it. My boss thinks I need reminding and for my hand to be held because, unlike her, I do not announce everything I am doing for the world to see how busy and important I am. That is unfair. I am in a slump at work in which I unfairly hate everything, including my perfectly nice boss.

I am going through a slump at my other work, too, as a subeditor of the film section of a magazine. Even though it has a strong creative element and is, objectively, an interesting job. Even though the writers I work with are improving every day, impressing me with their articulate analyses and amusing one-liners. Even so I find it hard to make myself sit down in front of the computer and edit submissions, or to come up with lists of films for the writers to review. I forget what I am doing while I do it. I forget what it used to feel like. I was so excited when I found out about this job; I jumped up and danced around the room with my best friend, squealing, while our partners looked on, confused. I felt like I was making progress. I was an editor now. I was doing something.

I am going through an everything slump. An agoraphobic slump. I dislike intensely having to leave the house and feel disgusting when I do. Hyper-aware of my disgusting fat stomach and legs, my greasy, sweaty skin. I am going through a sleeping slump, sometimes. I am exhausted but I cannot sleep. I am awake, alert, but I fall asleep as if I am passing out and wake feeling drugged. Sluggish.

People think the way to help me get out of this slump is to tell me how to fix it. Go back to volunteer work, set goals, exercise more, eat better. The fact that they are right only makes me angry. I do not seem to be having an anger slump; that one part of me is functioning perfectly, overtime, anytime, all the time.

They are right and they are wrong. Getting out of the house would  be good for me. If I exercised more and ate less crap I would probably feel better. I do not think they are right about the goal-setting thing; I have plenty of goals. Large, impressive, oppressive goals; goals that scare me, or that I am scared to think I might not ever meet. I have the weight of my own expectations, I do not need yours too.

They are right but they are wrong. If I could leave the house, exercise, prepare healthy food, I would. I think that I would if I could. It’s hard to explain that these simple things are hard for me to someone who has never found them difficult. Or worse, getting advice from those who have, at some point if not currently, experienced the same difficulties with getting out of bed, having a shower, focussing on a task long enough to finish it, making themselves a meal instead of ordering something deep-friend to be delivered. Have they forgotten? Or they are living with the same cognitive dissonance I am: the knowledge that these things would heal me, but that I could only do them if I weren’t already sick. If I could do these simple things with the ease with which people say the words, ‘Just get up,’ then I wouldn’t need to be told them.

These are the things I can do: watch TV, scroll through tumblr, masturbate, pick fights. These things are easy; these things make me feel alive, if only briefly. These things distract me from the gradual frittering away of my limited time. These things can be done in a slump; in a hunched over, balled up, listless position; things that require no effort or thought and contribute absolutely nothing, to anything or anyone.

I didn’t mean for this to happen but this blog has become a way for me to write about not being able to write. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. I am not writing any of the things I want to write. Is it enough to be writing? I started this blog because I wanted to teach myself discipline: I wanted to update this regularly, and hopefully about my writing successes. I had just been paid for writing and performing something for the very first time when I started this blog. I had all these ideas bubbling around in my brain, itching to be put down in words. Instead, I use it for those self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring bits of writing I mentioned before: these clichéd attempts to articulate what it feels like to be so depressed you can barely move; apologies and self-justifications for why I am not writing anything else. It’s not enough just to write, regardless of what you are writing. The words matter; what you are trying to say matters, whether or not it is any good, even if it is just by your own standards, matters. That you are writing something that contributes to something larger matters; just writing here, to fill up space on a page and be able to say, yes, I blog does not matter. There is nothing worthwhile in spewing your thoughts onto the page and posting it on the internet; this is insubstantial, this is the opposite of what I want. I would not be proud to say I wrote this. I will not tell anyone this is here.

Who does it matter to? Me. Me, my harshest critic. My slump does not prevent me from being angry, and it doesn’t prevent me from being angry at myself. Angry for these thoughts and I feelings that I cannot prevent. Angry that I waste so much time sitting around on the couch doing nothing. I am just the same as everyone else, telling me to pull my socks up: I think this is my fault. I think this is something that can be fixed by great effort, by sheer willpower. I start to plan. Fix-it plans: no more TV, yoga every morning, a blogging schedule, a plan to complete my novel. Some part of me still thinks this slump is something I can help.

self-destructive criticism

When I woke up this morning the first thing I did was check my email.

I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t even open my eyes; I just rolled over and groped blindly among the shoes, books, cardigans, bags, wool, charger cords, newspapers, plastic bags, unpaid bills, and empty drinking bottles until my hand settled on the familiar shape of my phone. I hung off the edge of the bed and scrolled through my notifications. Right at the bottom, beneath a string of marketing emails alerting me to sales I had no interest in, was an email from my editor.

I knew before I opened it that this was not going to be a fun email to read, because I had known when I submitted my last piece that it wasn’t good enough. I had known, and I had sat in front of my laptop the entirety of the day before until my head ached, trying to get the words out, but they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a complex piece, it wasn’t something dear to my heart – it was just a film review, of an interesting film that I had quite liked, but not loved, and in my head I knew why I felt the way I did about it. It shouldn’t have been a hard piece to write. But for whatever reasons the words wouldn’t come out and so I had typed up some rambling approximation of what was going through my head and sent it in before I could talk myself out of “finishing” it. I wanted to be done with it. I knew it was bad, and I knew I was too frustrated to keep looking at it, and I knew the deadline had already whooshed unhappily past. I was starting to feel a little scared, as I always do when it comes to the crunch, that I have chosen the wrong career and that I cannot handle writing.

Writing is hard to handle, harder than movie-montages of Shakespeare-types dipping their quills or hyped-up Beats frantically typing out scroll upon scroll into the madness of the night: writing scares the fuck out of me, and sometimes I can’t face it. Not every day, just some days, writing will suddenly be inexplicably more difficult to do on that day than on other days, and I have no idea why. On a bad day, everything I write comes out as drivel; every intelligent thought I have is obscured by my sudden inability to find the right word; all my good ideas whither under my cruel, unforgiving gaze.

I open the email and it tells me exactly what I already think of myself. Nice try, Lauren. Did you even go to high school? Did you not see those spelling mistakes? Have you ever heard of grammar? Good ideas – wish you’d had the brains to develop them. I hyperventilate quietly into my pillow, and when this stops seeming like a good plan I go and hyperventilate in the bathroom for a little bit, so my boyfriend won’t hear me and ask me what’s wrong. (If he asked me, I’d have to explain: I did this stupid thing, I knew it was stupid, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I just can’t handle this.) I look in the bathroom mirror, like people in movies do when they are having existential crises, and I ask the exhausted face in there if maybe it mightn’t be time that I gave up on the idea of having dreams and picked something else I could settle for.

For some reason, the utter absurdity, the completely self-pitying foolishness of this thought snaps me out of my panicky little spiral. Give up on having dreams? Did you really just think that? I know I am starting to sound a little bit like an American talk show host when I write this, but really – who, in their right mind, thinks Oh, you know what would be sweet? Having no ambition and being content with a really dull job. I could get really good at gardening. My life could be like one long Dilbert strip. 

And so I go back into the other room and this time the email says: ‘Thanks for your review, Lauren. I really liked x, y, and z – you should develop those more. Also, I’d like you to watch your spelling and grammar mistakes.’ Because the first time I read it through, I wasn’t really listening to my editor – who is lovely, and knows the value of constructive criticism (and probably a thing or two about the fragile egos of writers) – I was still listening to the panicky, scared, stupid girl who thinks a bad day means the end of a career. Or that a bad day makes a bad writer.

So I had a shower. I went to the bakery and got a coffee, and a muffin I probably shouldn’t have, but what the hell. I sat down in front of my computer and did the crazy-writer thing, where I mutter my sentences to myself and my boyfriend looks at me funny. And today turned out to be an equally inexplicably good writing day, and when I went looking for the words I found them, and my sentences made sense, and my ideas seemed pretty good, actually, once I got the chance to look at them again. And I learned my lesson for the day: whether it be first drafts or feedback emails from editors, read everything through twice. Things will look different in the morning.

____

*Actually, from time to time I have wished for apathy. Most often I’m in the middle of a panic attack when I think this – I think, god, if only I didn’t care. But this, like the panic, passes.