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.



15 Responses to “Confusion”

  1. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    Excellent post. I love the comparison of writing to professional skating. I’m guilty of wanting to do something correctly the first time and am sometimes irritated with myself when things don’t go my way. I can get all gloom-and-doom, feeling I’ve lost my writing abilities. I don’t think back to the times, all the many times, I had to do things wrong in order to make headway. As this piece suggests, this is not wasted time, but time gaining the necessary perspective on your own work.

    I’m glad to hear that Virgina Woolf faced these very conundrums I’ve dealt with in my own work and for years at that.

    I need to print out and tape this post on the wall next to my writing desk!

  2. Annie Says:

    Thank you for this. It’s exactly what I need right now. Although I also long for the clarity of knowing that I’m trying to do a Triple Lutz, however impossible that might seem, instead of struggling to define what it is I am trying to do, and hence whether to combine or interweave versions A, B, and C in some way that keeps slipping out of my grasp. I’m coming to the conclusion that the only way to know is to actually do it, in all its possible permutations, however time-consuming that may be. So, yes, determination and persistence would help. Since I can’t order that online, I have a copy of Kay Ryan’s “Patience” on my desk.

  3. Julie Raynor Says:

    How much I appreciate this today. It does take grit and determination to tolerate the anxiety of the creative process. Years ago a writer friend astonished me by saying, “you’re so brave,” which I could not begin to believe about myself or the work I was embarking on. After much time, and confusion, as the work continues, now I understand what she meant–and what courage is–to try to do something so difficult, what often feels beyond our capacity, yet we cannot give up. This is how art is made, and we are remade, through its images.

  4. Margaux Fragoso Says:

    I really like this quote from “Resilience” by Boris Cyrunlnik (an incredible book for those writing about difficult things): “A life is not a history. It is a constant resolution of the problem of adaptation.” (168) This can apply both to Louise’s discussion of the confusion we face as writers and to Julie Raynor’s above comment about art remaking us through its images.

  5. Edi Giunta Says:

    As always, your words bring such wisdom and clarity.
    On a small bookshelf near my desk there is “the” wire basket with several drafts and notes from my manuscript: I have been stubbornly avoiding it, as if clarity and solutions could come outside the proces. About to plunge back, with your words as my guding light.

  6. ashley Leavitt Says:

    This post could not have come at a more perfect time for me. Because I am a student writer, I am always “testing the waters” with new styles, voices, structure, and subject material. At times, I feel pressured to “format” my writing “prematurely” so that it will not appear to my peers or professor as words, sentences, even paragraphs that have been dropped in to a blender. Similarly, I feel irrationally compelled to have “the story” all mapped out and neatly packaged before I even begin –big mistake. Actually, I am finding, like this post and the relating comments suggest, that it is generally much more effective to let the writing emerge from the writing. So…

    For now, I am writing as I think. I am not trying to “write” or even make sense of what I write or what composes what I write. I find it better this way. To put things down as they come in a spool of emotions that unravel on the page. I may catch something in the dark abyss of my liquid thoughts, something that is attracted to shiny lures, or stinky bait. But until then, if then, I write from the shore of my memory hoping to fish something big from the deep, expecting nothing, but hoping to at least catch a glimpse of my life as it is reflected off the surface of the lake where I sit, at edge, casting with different teasers into, shattering its pristine surface in a hundred hundred rings expanding outward until they disappear on the placid surface of what encases this thing called me.

  7. Anna Says:

    Wonderful post; thank you! In my current project, I was plagued for years by uncertainty about the form it would eventually take, and consequently about which materials to select from the abundance at hand. Recently I settled on a structure and an overarching theme. That has gotten me going (thank goodness!); however, I remind myself that this concept is provisional. I allow myself the freedom to change it in the future, but meanwhile it has kept me from flailing around in the swamp of indecision that immobilized me for so long.

  8. ajuele Says:

    A few days ago I realized that I was more confused than ever on a writing project I am working on, but I reveled in this confusion. Perhaps because my subject involves investigating my past, the confusion has always been there, but now that I am bringing it to the forefront with my writing, I find that it is actually helping me. I am not saying that it isn’t frustrating. But not knowing exactly how to finish a particular goal – for instance, compressing longer scenes into smaller scenelets – gives me the opportunity to try something new out, something that I may have never thought of if I wasn’t confused. Because I am still a novice, I find that every new thing I have learned adds a different layer to my work, in essence, adds to the confusion if I am not keeping track of how to use my writing tools properly. But when I look back on how expansive my work can become with all these new ways of doing things, I am thankful for holding on to the confusion, rather than dismissing the new ideas as something I couldn’t use. Now, I’m excited to know that I am going to someplace the writing has never been before, which makes the confusion, for how ever long it lasts, easier to deal with.

  9. Danielle Says:

    I’ve had confusion cloud my head several times while writing, and often as I’m beginning a new piece, that confusion leads me to different places. I’ve never shied away from it. Honestly, I feel trying to fight it will only dig you into a whole. As writers,we may have a certain story in our heads, but once we give life to the characters, they begin to tell us how the story really goes.

    Only a few times have I written stories that went straight from A-Z. The short story I’m working on now isn’t as easy. I know how it begins and ends. It’s the middle that’s giving me trouble believe it or not.

    As for structure, I’m having that issue with my memoir. I’m writing chapters and pieces, but have no clue how I want to structure them.

  10. Marianne Says:

    For me the confusion begins whenever I revise. I constantly question myself. Should I deleted this, should I rephrase this? The struggle, I think, is that my writing is so personal, I really like what it says and don’t want to change it. It sounded so good the first time. So, I spend hours going over the same thing. The same sentence over and over until finally I relinquish, and make the change. It sounds better, for now, but I will probably make another change. I guess this is part of the growth process.

  11. Vic Venom Says:

    Wow, your granddaughter has enough courage for 10 kids twice her age (Myself included). Roadblocks, writer’s block, death of creativity, whatever you choose to call it happens to me constantly. Worse is that I’m impatient. I expect things to click and work now and when they don’t I attempt to force it through, which hurts my work in the end.

    Writing I wish came as easy as flipping a switch and suddenly I look up and there go 20 pages. But it’s never that easy. The frustration kills me but then I’ll turn around and see a bunch of books, some written by people my age and say “If they can do it…”

    It’s getting past the confusion that makes writing worth while.

  12. Shayla D. Cook Says:

    The beauty about this post is how anyone can relate. Anyone writing suffers from confusion no matter how well he or she understands how to approach their piece. During the confusion, we tend to make mistakes. We then learn and grow from these mistakes. As much as I hate to share this thought with you Louise, memoir terribly confused me. I have never been so annoyed in my life with writing. Oddly, I have become fascinated with how to put together components in order to produce a sound memoir.

    Thank You Louise.

  13. Confusion has become a huge challenge for me as a writer, especially as a beginning memoir writer. My writing has taken the shape of a spider web, although I set out to accomplish an elegant, straight line (my first problem). In the middle, I find my tiny, condensed memory, a perfect circle that serves as my foundation, my base point. From that point, I weave into different directions, my “swerves,” with each singular strand of silk being attached to its own base. Unlike a seasoned spider, which can connect these various strands to ultimately create a beautiful, ornate, and ingenious spiral orb, I cannot. The webs I create look strikingly similar to the webs found in my house, made by extremely tiny spiders: a silk-strung mess, lacking any shape at all.

    While I start in one direction, my “confusion process” sends me out into various others, which results in two to three different versions of the same story. I need to find the determination, as found in those resilient, fat spiders, to discover a way to connect my piece, so it becomes one spiral orb. The tiny spiders in my house usually disappear after a few weeks, leaving their disgruntled, unsuccessful webs behind. Although big spiders eventually leave their webs behind too, their stay is longer and more successful.

    Your blog truly spoke to me when you stated, “Writing involves the ability to wait until the right solution suggests itself. It can’t be forced.” Much like those little house spiders, I’ve been trying to force solutions where they clearly don’t work. I need to learn, as you stated, to “tolerate” anxiety and “tolerate” confusion. My intolerance leaves me struggling with not only myself, but also my intended goal. The big, fat spiders with their gorgeous webs probably do not know, at first, what direction their silk will take them, but I am certain, what makes them successful, is that they trust themselves enough within the process to go wherever, literally wherever, they have to go in order to make the web work. As always, their solution suggests itself, leaving them with a successful piece of beautiful and original work, that began as only the thinnest strand of silk.

  14. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Dear Louise,
    I am in a place with my writing that feels uncomfortable and overwhelming. I am also a late in life fledgling writer but I am commited – so I am trying to let go. Thank you for showing me that even successful, professional writers must face confusion and “tolerate the anxiety”.

  15. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    This post was exactly what I needed, thank you. My writing is evolving and I keep changing its form. It is a very frustrating process when you write then delete and then write again and revise and you keep coming out with a piece that your not sure of. Confusion is a perfect word to describe my writing process right now. I’ve been trying to write and not look back but when I find myself in the editing process I find that what I wrote just doesn’t work, and then it’s back to the drawing board. Thank you for showing me that even professional writers get confused.

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