Was it possible that I had found my calling only to discover that I really sucked at it? Could the world be that cruel? I was certain it could. But somehow, whether from sheer stubbornness or a refusal to accept what I believed to be the truth, I stuck with it. It was not until years later that I would understand that doubt is oftentimes a good signifier of talent, that it actually is talent.
— Eugene Cross, “A Powerful Sort of Doubt”
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How many times when I’ve graded student essays or edited friends’ stories do I cover their pages with my ink, tracking heavy with my changes? All those notes, edits, deletions, additions–they are my well-intentioned help. Right?
Many times, without saying it directly, I’ve basically shouted to apprentice writers, Start over. This sucks.
Now it’s my turn, and I mean, really my turn.
My agent has asked me to start over.
I’ve wrestled with every kind of reaction, ranging from
That’s right, coached. The image of the author in the garret struggling to write alone is no more for me. In fact, I abandoned that pose back in 2003 when I applied for an intensive week-long workshop with author Doris Betts. There I met lifelong writer pals Nancy, Bob, Susan, and David–all with fascinating writing projects and blogs. The moment you give your baby up to the group for commentary, and they dig in with knives, cheers, and questions, you’ve sent the world a message that you care what it thinks.
To brainstorm through your outline with someone else–to trust that someone else might know audience and story development better–to gamble away scenes, characters, and assumptions–that’s a tall order for me. But these last two weeks, I’ve been doing it. I’ve sent off a two new synopses with the faith that around this blind curve is a new story line, like a freshly-paved road.
What do I want to be doing 20 years from now? What will get me published without losing my artistic integrity? Those two questions juggle career, audience, publishing, muse, and soul for me. I will try to keep Wendy who she is while taking her on a new journey in her present. Starting over could mean scrap Wendy’s past history of abuse and make her live it in real time–a tall order for sure. How I will keep her unique faith in Michael Jackson’s sainthood is another challenge. All of this overhaul is in the quest to get Wendy to actively pursue something very focused in the present, react to real conflict and change with simplified action, and to then resolve the crisis that forced her out of her cave.
I may also try this and find none of it works. I have to live today in that not knowing of the restart.
In all the one-on-one tutorials and thousands of coaching words I provided students, I never directly said, Start over, but perhaps I said, Good start, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Or maybe I said, Let’s go back to your outline. I know teachers who write alongside their students, crafting the same academic papers, and if time permits (which it does not), it certainly is an ideal exercise. For all those years I didn’t start over with my kids, well, rest assured I am doing it now.
What goes around, comes around, kiddos. In the end, we all have to sweat after our grades and our dreams. And what I’m asking today is how I will get an A in this market and whether it will be worth the sacrifice. I must live in the gray, that hybrid space of not knowing my next steps, and see if my head, heart, and soul can hang with the twists and turns.