Turning the Corner, by Louise DeSalvo

July 23, 2010

There comes a time in every project when we turn a corner. Before that moment, everything was opaque, confusing, difficult.  We wonder whether what we’re doing is worth it.    We worry that we’ll never finish.  We have lots of stuff but we don’t know what to do with it.  We might have some idea of how the piece or the book will come together, but we’re not sure it’s right.  We’re working every day but the work seems to be going nowhere.  We circle around and around our subject, writing good material, writing material that seems not to fit with our project, writing stuff that we know we’ll never use but that we need to write anyway.

And this goes on and on and on.  Sometimes we think we should quit.  The book is taking too much of our life.  We think about it all the time but thinking about it doesn’t seem to solve anything.  We don’t think the work will ever work. We write one outline, and then another, and then another. We organize our work.  We think we might be able to make a book out of our hundreds (thousands?) of pages, our false starts, our semi-finished stuff, our stuff that sings.

And this goes on and on and on.

Then, one day, and who knows when or why or how it happens, we know that the book will happen.  We may not know exactly what the chapters will be.  We may not know whether there will be chapters or just a continuous narrative.  But we know that we have the right stuff to finish the book.

This is miracle time, magic time, the move from opacity to clarity.  And we can’t force this to happen. We have to show up at the desk again and again, day after day, week after week, and sometimes, year after year for that splendid moment to arrive.

That’s what’s happened to me every time I’ve written a piece, a book.  It’s happened to every one of the students I’ve worked with.  That moment of arrival, when we know we’ll finish, when we have a sense of what needs to be done.  When students ask me when it will happen, I say, Who knows, just keep working.  When students ask me how they’ll know it’s happened, I say, You’ll know (just like my husband told our son that he’d know when he fell in love — he didn’t like the answer, wanted to know how he’d know, to which my husband responded, don’t worry, you’ll know, which didn’t satisfy him at all,  and after it happened, my son understood).

It’ll happen.  And you’ll know when it does.

That’s a stage of the project I love.  Who wouldn’t?  And it’s a stage I don’t like to rush through, though the impulse is to drive the book forward faster than before.  Who, after spending a few years on a project, doesn’t want to be finished, doesn’t want to move on to something else?

I’m there right now.  And loving it.  Everyday I write my Successful Outcome, my Next To Do list, but now I know that this list will yield good work.  Everyday I look at earlier drafts of this work in progress, and I know what to cut, what to expand, how to change the voice.  And I have no idea how I know, I just do.  Everyday the work inches forward, but now I know there’s an end in sight, though I don’t know when.

To me, this stage feels better than any other phase of writing, better than when I’m finished, better than when the book gets accepted at a press, far better than when a book comes out.  (Anne Lamott said something like she loves to write but she hates publishing.  I understand.)  You’re in process, you have a good stretch of work ahead, but you know you’re heading toward the.

Work and wait patiently if you can (I can’t) for that magic moment to happen when you turn the corner on your work.  And celebrate this moment.  It is one that is hard-earned.

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