March 23, 2011
I’ve been thinking about the role confusion plays in the writing process. I think it differs from one person to another, but I want to talk about how it works for me. And I want to talk about how important confusion is to the creative process, and how essential it is for us to tolerate confusion if we’re to complete our work.
At the beginning of a project, I’m usually very clear about what I want to do. Of course I am. The first step down a long road is exciting. I anticipate with great joy what awaits me. I look forward to the surprises I know will accompany the journey. I’m happy that I have a big piece of writing ahead of me, a project to commit to, and a subject to occupy me. I look forward to reading works something like the one I’m planning. I can’t wait to do the necessary research.
And then the work starts. I’m clear for a while. And then something happens on the page that seems promising that takes me in another direction. The first bout of confusion. Should I stay with the plan I had? Should I stick with the structure of the book I anticipated writing? Should I go where the work is taking me?
I usually go where the work is taking me because it’s been my experience that these “swerves,” if you will, get me into territory I hadn’t anticipated and that this is where I often push my work in a direction different from what I’ve done before.
And so I follow that new path, take that new journey. But usually my desire is ahead of the skill set I need to acquire to tell this story in a new way. Let’s say that before this, I’d written straight arrow trajectories – stories that started in place A and ended in place Z. In this new way of being with my work, I’m witnessing myself circling round and round in the narrative. But I don’t yet know how best to bring my reader along as I work the associational patterns I’m beginning to find exciting. I’m confused about how to do it.
Then there might come a time when I’m so confused about how to organize the piece, or who I am as a narrator in the piece (where I fit into, say, the story I’m telling about my father) that I veer from the new way of doing the work and so I have pages that tell the story one way (the A version); pages that tell the story the “swerve” way (the B version); pages that tell the story the “swerve from the swerve” way (the C version).
What to do?
I’ve read a lot about the creative process, and I’ve learned that one way we can forestall our work is to resolve confusion to early. Being a writer is hard in one important way: we have to learn to tolerate anxiety, learn to tolerate confusion. (There’s a great book by Eric Maisel, Ph.D. called Fearless Creating that’s about managing anxiety as we work.) If we can’t, if we don’t we might resolve our creative challenges too quickly. We might force the work into an order or voice or style prematurely to alleviate our anxiety. But we will have stopped our growth as a writer dead in its tracks.
Sometimes works seem like failures because we’re pushing the envelope. We’re moving into narrative places we haven’t been before.
I’m amazed at how many writers I work with don’t want to “fail on the page” at all. They want their work to be all nice, all right, all working the way it should from the moment they begin the process to the moment they end the process. I have a hard time convincing them that it’s good to have work that’s not yet working because you’ve provided yourself with a creative problem (read challenge) that you have to fix. I know writers who get so discouraged by the fact that their work is not working that, instead of smiling and saying, “Great, let me go home and see what happens,” they pout and fuss and complain. Who do you know who hit a home run the first time they stepped up to the plate and faced a pitch? But some writers I know expect that of themselves. And that’s too bad.
Many people who write about creativity say that what we need more than talent (for who knows what that is) is grit and determination. And I’m inclined to agree. I think of my granddaughter when she was very small. I took her to a playground. She’d decided she wanted to learn to swing from ring to ring to ring. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the first ring, so I had to lift her. That first day she tried, she worked at it until her hands were bloody. I tried to get her to stop. But you can’t get my granddaughter to stop when she’s determined. I said, “Julia, please stop, your mother will be mad at me for not stopping you because you’re hurting yourself.” She turned to me with a look on her face that I’ve come to know means business and said, “Nana, I’m not a girl who gives up.” She was about six. I marveled at her. She knew this about herself already. That she wasn’t a girl to give up no matter what the cost was. I insisted that she stop. We had a scene. But I learned something about the power of determination. And the next time we went to the park, she told me she’d figured out how to do it in her head, and she tried again, and this time, she was better than the time before. She’d let herself live with the fact that she wasn’t succeeding; she used her imagination to work through how her body should do it; she came back and tried again.
Go to a skating rink where pros are practicing. Watch them fall and fall and fall again as they attempt a new skill, a Triple Lutz, say. Sure, they can do doubles easily without falling. But they’re determined to do a Triple. And there are some skaters now doing Quads – quadruple jumps (four turns, rather than three). You watch their faces as they attempt something new. You see puzzlement and confusion there. But it doesn’t stop them. The confusion spurs them on rather than stops them in their tracks. They want clarity about how to do this. And they practice and practice until they get to that end point of knowing how to do the jump.
Clarity comes at different times in the process. There’s no predicting when it will come. I’ve seen a lot of writers force their work into a kind of fossilized shape because they wanted a resolution to their creative challenges. But Virginia Woolf, for example, lived for years with the problem of how to structure The Years. She was trying a new form – narrative chapters interleaved with polemical chapters. It didn’t work and it didn’t work and it didn’t work. She didn’t give up. What she did, ultimately, was to take the meaning of the polemical chapters and infuse the narrative with that meaning. She abandoned a plan. She found another way of completing the work. She used the polemical chapters for a nonfiction work.
It’s not good, I think, to resolve confusion too quickly. In the book I’m now writing, I was confused for years about the shape it would take, its form, where I’d be in the narrative, though I was never confused about the subject. That confusion was in evidence in the hundreds of pages I wrote. They were not there, not where I wanted them to be. I saw it each time I worked, each time I reread. But I didn’t yet know how to solve my challenge.
One of the worst things you can do for a writer friend is tell them something is working when it’s not. All of us would like to stop feeling the confusion, and our friends, thinking they’re helping up, might praise what should, in fact, be criticized. It’s one of the reasons many writers about creativity warn against showing work too soon. My husband, though, who is my ideal reader said, “Yes, this doesn’t work big time. But I know you can make it work. And I did. But it took a long time.
The impulse to resolve confusion I like to think of as the fuel that drives the creative process. Writing involves the ability to wait until the right solution suggests itself. It can’t be forced. Trust that the solution will be found through working. Trust that part of the learning process is learning to tolerate that you don’t yet have the answer.
Clarity has always come to me. Often late in the process. Always just after I’d thought through the possibility of abandoning the work because I didn’t think I had what it takes to figure out what to do.
Moral of the story: confusion always precedes clarity. And confusion can last a long, long time.