Biggest Challenge Right Now
September 13, 2012
So…. what is your major writing challenge right now? When I’m writing, I sometimes become overwhelmed by all the challenges I’m facing, as I am now, taking up, again, the book about my father and World War II after putting it down over a year ago.
One way I calm myself down during such a time is to stop and ask myself to articulate the single most important challenge I’m facing. And then I ask myself if I can discover a strategy to help me face this challenge. The payoff, I find, is that I feel more in control of the writing process though it is, of course, always mysterious, always full of surprises.
Although I imagine that I know what my major challenge is, it’s not until I take some time—twenty minutes or so—to free write about it, that I truly begin to understand what I’m facing.
For example, when I came to a halt in the midst of writing a book about moving, I was puzzled about why my writing came to a halt. I did what I tend to do to get beyond this impasse—make some new writing rules for myself; remind myself of the routines that work best for me. I tried a new schedule, writing in the afternoons instead of the mornings; writing by hand instead of on the computer; free writing instead of writing according to a plan. But nothing worked. Something was stopping me, and I hadn’t taken the time to figure it out, no doubt because I didn’t want to know.
One day I decided to take my journal and begin facing what it was that might be getting in my way. I wrote “My most important challenge right now is….” at the top of the page and then let myself free write for twenty minutes to see what would happen. I knew, when I started, that I might find myself in territory that I hadn’t yet examined. And I did.
During that writing time, I discovered that I was still in the process of mourning my father, who had died in the midst of my writing that book. Suddenly, writing about moving seemed trivial to me. Mourning, I knew, was a process you couldn’t rush (though we’re encouraged to try to rush this process in our culture). And yet, I had rushed right back to my work as soon as my father was buried, assuming that I could force my writing self to work when my mourning self needed some time—perhaps a great deal of time—to process my father’s death, for we had a complex relationship, though in the last months of his life, there were moments when we connected as we never had before, once, looking at a reproduction of a portion of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo.
I realized that I had two choices. Either I could pause in my work and mourn my father. Or I could use my writing in a way that would help my mourning. I knew from my research on writing that many writers—Mark Doty among them in Heaven’s Coast—used the creation of their work to help with the losses they’d suffered, I decided to continue to write. But in a different way.
In the months that followed, I allowed my mourning to inform my writing. I wrote about the moves my father had made in his life and went off on a tangent, writing more about my father than the book I was writing could ever accommodate. Still, in time, I realized that I needed to write this material, and that I could use it in another book once I returned to writing the moving book. And, in time, the book about moving, too, shifted as a result of my decision. I began to understand that moving is a kind of death, and I began to deepen what I had written with this insight.
When I’ve asked writers I’ve worked with to undertake this exercise, their responses have illuminated their works in progress. Often, their answers surprised them. And when I asked them to develop a strategy for dealing with this challenge, each of them quickly discovered what they needed to do right now.
Some writers discovered that they, too, were in the process of mourning: one decided that she would learn abut the form of the elegy, that she would read memoirs that were in fact elegies (Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother is one), and that she would write an elegy for her dead parent. One writer learned that, in researching a parent’s life—the subject of their memoir—she’d become overwhelmed by what was learned because it contradicted what was remembered about the past; she decided that she would figure out a way to write both narratives—the ones she discovered through research; the one she remembered—and she realized that this might make a more interesting and complex narrative, for it would illuminate the difference between what is remembered and what has been recorded.
Another writer, relating the narrative of a parent with a terminal illness, noticed that she was confused about her work because the story of her mother’s illness changed each day and she didn’t know where to begin the narrative, where to end it. When pondering what a solution might be, she learned that she wanted to represent her confusion on the page, that she might even tell the reader something like, “Where to start this story, where to end it, I don’t know, for this is the life I am living right now and there’s no getting away from it, there’s no getting distance from it.” She understood that writing about the experience as it was unfolding was necessary for her and that it might be illuminating for a reader. (I suggested she read Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, which discusses this challenge.)
One writer realized that she wanted to write about what she perceived to be the truth about her family without vilifying its members. She decided to find a way to write the worst possible descriptions of who they were, to tell the reader that this was the way she sometimes perceived them, and then to go back, and write correctives to the caricatures, telling the reader about her process of trying to come to discover what a more equable narrative might look like. (Natalie Taylor’s memoir Signs of Life does this brilliantly. She is twenty-four and pregnant with her first child when her husband dies in an accident; she portrays his mother harshly throughout the memoir, and then, towards the end, rethinks why.)
Yet another writer worried that his writing was coming in fragments, and he didn’t know how he would make a linear narrative of the piece, didn’t know how he would find a thread amidst the seeming disconnections in his work. He decided that a fragmented work would be eminently suited to his subject—his difficult adolescence—but that he would try to find threads in the narrative and write them, but perhaps as a fragment too. (Paul Auster’s recent Winter Journal is a fine model for a fragmented narrative.)
Several writers wondered how to represent in English a childhood experienced in another language for they feared English would misrepresent that past. One decided to use her first language in the work wherever possible. Another decided to write the work two ways—as it would be expressed in English, and as it would be expressed in the first language rendered in English to show how differently each language represented experience. That is, she’d write the major challenge she faced into her work.
One writer relating a traumatic experience feared he would be sucked back into “reliving” the past and wasn’t writing because he didn’t want to be retraumatized. He discovered that it was necessary for him to write about this incident, but that he would set a timer for twenty minutes, which, he believed, would help him enter the narrative, and then leave it. He decided he needed to place a boundary around that experience. He decided, too, that if he felt sucked back into the experience, he would remind himself that the incident was in the past, but that he would walk away from the work for the time being.
Writing about our most important current writing challenge, and then posing a solution to this challenge, might open up our writing in unexpected ways. As these examples illustrate, we writers quickly learn what we’re facing, and our challenges push us into unexpected directions, both in terms of subject matter and form.
So what have I learned about my current writing challenge? I wrote that I was afraid to be sucked back into that time of mourning. The solution I posited was to enter the work slowly—to retype the journal entries I’d made about working on the book and, as I did so, to assess my ability to reenter the work. I’m almost finished with that task now, and when I’m finished, I’ll rethink whether I want to continue.