That Time Anne Lamott Responded to Me

Let’s be honest: this week has been hard.  Really hard.

Writing-wise.

I am writing a first draft, and it’s going horribly (as writing a first draft is wont to go), and I’m stumbling into evening after evening of soul-shaking, identity-questioning doubts about my writing abilities.

I’m a fraud.
I don’t know how to write a book.
I don’t have a second book in me.
My agent and editor and everyone else will discover that I’m just a one-book girl.

Goodreads hosted an event “Ask Anne Lamott” this past week, and just now, I have found the time to sift through her responses.  You need to know that Anne Lamott always seems to be speaking directly to my heart– we are both writers, Christians, and women who wildly, desperately need help– and so all of her responses to various reader-posed questions felt like balm.  This one, in fact, felt like validation:

Anne Lamott

“You have to be pretty lost and crazy” in writing fiction.  Yes, okay, I reassure myself.  This is just the way of things; this is The Way It Goes.

But then, there it was– an actual response to me.  Me!  Jackie Lea Sommers!

Anne Lamott to Me

“Short assignments, shitty first drafts, and just do it.”  Yes, thank you.  That is how my next novel will get written: day after day writing something bad, then making it less bad, then making it good, then making it great.  I’m in the bad stage right now, and that’s okay.

“You get to ask people for help.”  Yes, thank you.  I actually stopped in to my beloved writing professor’s office just yesterday to vocalize my fears, and she said that if I needed encouragement in the zen of writing or someone to commiserate with, I could just ask.  I will definitely be asking.  And then, last night, I met with [some, but not all, of] my writing group, women who let me vent about Penn and Maggie, my newest characters, and about their problems.  My group members listened and encouraged and offered suggestions, and it was lovely.  And I’m so terribly grateful for my beta readers too!

“And read a lot more poetry.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I think I’ll start with some Mary Oliver tonight.  I haven’t yet had a chance to crack open her latest, A Thousand Mornings.  Then Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing.  It sounds like respite.

For the Next Time I Start Writing a New Novel

Dear Jackie,

By the time you start writing your next novel, you will have forgotten a few things, and in those moments, I hope you’ll come back to this post and be reminded.

* Writing a novel is hard.  The beginning stages kind of suck.  You barely know your characters until you’ve written the whole first draft, and so for a couple months, you’re essentially writing blind.  You forget that.  In those difficult days of editing, you think longingly of the “carefree” days of freewriting, having forgotten that you felt completely lost and simultaneously terrified that you were wasting your time.

* This is just what it is like at the start of a new novel.  You feel lost and lonely, and every scene feels stilted and confused.  You haven’t yet figured out your character’s deep-seated desires, let alone their surface ones, and you certainly aren’t aware of their secrets and many of their motivations.  You will.  You just need to spend time with them.  That’s how you get to know any new friend.

* It all seems so touch-and-go at the start.  You feel sort of committed to your idea, kind of committed to the characters.  Everything seems masterful in your head, and then the moment you start to type it out, it feels thin and aimless.  That’s because it is thin and aimless– for now— but that is just what it’s like at the start of a new novel.  At least for you.

* One thousand words each day will get you one thousand words a day closer to a completed first draft.  And when you force yourself to show up and sit down, your characters will show up too, and that’s essentially the only way you’re going to get them to spill their guts to you.  So keep showing up.

* First drafts are meant to be terrible.

* You don’t see most writers’ first drafts, just like most people won’t see yours.  So calm down.

* Remember that E.L. Doctorow quote?  “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  Those are someone else’s words explaining your experience, because, really, it’s quite universal.  Remember that.

* Sometimes you’ll go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.  Even if there aren’t novels down there, there are still lessons.

* Pumps need to be primed.

* Quit complaining to everyone and go write one thousand more words.

Love,

Jackie Lea, who is fumbling in the darkness of the beginnings of a first draft and wanted to remind future Jackie Lea of what it is like

headlights

My First Draft Disclaimer/ Declaration/ Manifesto

I am going to write an absolutely terrible first draft, and I’m not going to apologize for it.

The characters will be inconsistent, the exposition will be bare-faced, the details will be absent, and the climax will be boring.

I won’t care.

I will neglect the setting.  I will force the dialogue.  I will let the characters do whatever the hell they want.

It doesn’t matter.

I will use cliches.  I will info-dump.  I will rely on stereotypes.

It’s all right.

Because it’s a first draft.

All that matters is that I put words onto pages.  Every day.  Bad ones.  Lots of adverbs.  And the word nice.  The phrase “nicely nice.”  All of it in passive tense.

I will be kind to myself and to my first draft.  I will let it get its way.  I will baby it and baby myself.

But you’d better believe that once I have this first draft done, I will wring it out and make it surrender.  

write your book

And, now, for your viewing pleasure, my Second Draft Manifesto.

trusting the creative process

Trusting the whatta?

The creative process.  I don’t know anyone (except for maybe Addie Zierman) who writes lovely first drafts, and that is just fine.  Freewrite, feedback, re-write, repeat: for me at least, this is the model of the creative process.  And every time I get to the “repeat” part, the draft is better.  If you can boil writing into a formula, that’s what mine looks like.  And then one magical day, the “feedback” part says, “Um, I like it as is,” and you’re done (until some agent tells you otherwise).

It’s bizarre.  Writing– this strange, mystical, spiritual experience– is somehow, for me, whittled into show up and write and then do it again.  After enough times, this clunky, staggering, unrealistic, forced, ridiculous draft turns into a piece of art.  I’m amazed by it.

I have not been writing fiction for long.  Fewer than five years actually.  So I am still in the dating stage with the creative process, still a little unsure that it will really work, uncertain that this formula really does add up.  I’ve spent the last four and half years watching it work (consistently!), and yet I still find myself doubting it.

Then I write another draft, and it is that much better than the last one, and I think in wonder, “It really is working!”

Just like any other relationship, I am learning to trust the creative process.  Show up, put in the effort, don’t get too attached, receive criticism, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit … and it will work.

I am posting this reminder TO MYSELF:

Jackie, KEEP GOING.  Write and keep an open dialogue with those who care about your project.  It will come together.  If it has come this far in 8 months, think of where it will be a year from now!  The creative process WORKS.  It can handle your doubt as long as you keep showing up.

Will you please leave me an encouraging comment?  I could sure use one right now.