Monday, January 13, 2014

Chapter One: A blank page by Cheryl Harper

Since it’s January and I’ve already made and broken my resolutions, beginnings are on my mind, specifically beginning the next book. I had thought, once upon a time, that writing would get easier. It’s a skill, a craft, so assuming I practice long enough, surely it will feel less like climbing the mountain and more like rolling down the hill. Right? Right?! Lie to me if you have to. The difficult truth I’m facing: Chapter One and the blank page are still pretty challenging. So I sit with my fingers on the keyboard and watch the cursor blink.

I think this might be because I feel pressure now when I sit down to write. Maybe because I’ve seen reviews. Did you know that if you’re published, people can actually READ WHAT YOU WROTE? In an abstract way, I did too, but it was something I really needed to consider better. Even happy-dance-inducing good reviews give me that zing that something I made is out there in the world…all alone. For me, this brings on the panicky feelings of my college creative writing class where I sat across from that boy, THE boy, the cool one with the tie dye and deep, dark eyes as he read and then critiqued my poem. Did he know it was mine? No. Did I want to slink from the room anyway? Yes. But that might have given me away so I suffered through the panic.

And that was a really good lesson. Critique sometimes takes the form of reviews now and those I can handle (she says with a nervous laugh), but I feel a shade of that while I stare at the blank page. What if this idea doesn’t work? What if this idea is just stupid? What if I can’t figure out what happens next? What if I go the wrong direction? What if spell-check mysteriously disappears from the world and I’m left on my own to figure out how to spell lable? Label. That one gets me every single time.

Even if it isn’t easy now, I’ve practiced enough to know that while that cursor is blinking, there’s hope. So the first scene I wrote is actually the middle of the book? Cut and paste. So the first scene I wrote doesn’t even go in this book? Delete and celebrate the remainder. What if I don’t know what happens next? Time to play Candy Crush. I'm learning all the tools.

And what if the words stop coming? Even through form rejections, revise-and-resubmit-and-then-rejection letters, rounds of revision, try and try again, and Word’s blessed red spell-check lines, the words have kept coming. While the cursor blinks and the words keep coming, I can rearrange them, and if I’m really lucky, a wonderful editor will point me in the right direction and help fix the things that blessed spell-check can’t. Trusting that this is true is something I’m still learning, and I need to look up my notes every time I start a new story. Also, I buy motivational coasters like the one in the picture. A reminder is always a good thing.

What about you? How do you feel about starting a new story?


PS. That boy? The artsy, good-looking, way too cool guy who read my poem? His critique: I would have chosen a different title. His title was better. I’ve always been terrible with titles.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. Stephen King, On Writing

17 comments:

  1. Cheryl,
    I'm thinking all of us could have written this post. And, oh, the angst when your halfway through and you ask yourself, "Did it just MEANDER!"
    BTW, when you added the PS, I was expecting to hear that you'd married That Boy.

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    1. What a great book that would be, right? No such luck. But maybe I could write it...

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  2. Pamela, so true that each of us could have written this. What's the best motivational line you've ever seen? Mine is currently from Titanium (a song about bullying, but still): Shoot me down, but I won't fall...Reviews are lovely, but in the end they are only one person's opinion. Nothing to fear.

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    1. Now I'll be singing that song in my head, Mel! I usually just repeat over and over and over: Just do the best you can. Sometimes it even works!

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  3. Cheryl - Absolutely! We're all insecure because digging a story out of you is like giving birth through your fingertips. (Yeah, I know that's weird, but isn't the difficulty of putting the thought into words what we're talking about?) I think it's like Michelangelo's sculpture. He said the figure was already in the marble, he just had to find it. That's true of our stories. Instead of carving away at the marble, we're writing stuff - maybe some of it not very good - but that allows us to get past it to the good stuff. It's in us, we just have to find it. And hang the reviews if they're bad. I believe we all do our very best and that's what we're called to do. If someone else doesn't get it, the world goes on.

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  4. Great post, Cheryl. We all feel this. I know I can empathize! I love that quote by Stephen King. Another one that has gotten me through (I even have it on my wall) is the Japanese proverb 'Fall down seven times, stand up eight'.

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  5. Cheryl, Hey, welcome to the Heartwarming blog group. My mantra for working, writing, raising kids, for living is: "This too shall pass" Everything does and this too the blank page will be filled. I love what Muriel said about Michelangelo, as I recall having read that in his life story. And no many how many times you do it, tossing your baby out into the world is done with fear and trepidation.

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    1. Fear and trepidation...you've nailed it perfectly!

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  6. It depends. If I've turned the idea over and over in my head, played the what if game for endless rounds, or written an outline, the writing just flows and flows until the dreaded middle. When I have a glimmer of an idea and decide to wing it, I hate life at the revision stage, but I start out so boldly. But I'm also unpublished. I think that once your book is out in the wild and expectations have been formed, the pressure begins to build. I'm enjoying my freedom to muckrake at my own pace while I can. Deadlines make the blank page a towering monster. Happy writing.

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    1. I'm a panster who wants to be a plotter someday. I get so energized by the first idea, a single scene, that I want to write immediately. But you are so right about the middle...The more I do this, the better I understand how nice a well-developed outline could be. The deadline helps me because there's usually no time to hesitate!

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  7. Cheryl, this was so inspiring! I felt like everything you said was speaking directly to me. I'm on my third solo book now, my second is coming out in March and I write with a trepidation I didn't really feel before and it's impacting my confidence!!! I'm going to take all of your positive insights to heart and hopefully make it through my chapter tomorrow! Thank you so much. I really needed this!

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    1. I'm so happy I'm not alone!!! Sometimes it helps to know that this feeling is just part of the process and so I can sit down and power through it. Other times, it takes a lot of Diet Coke and chocolate. I do whatever works, you know? I know you'll make it through that chapter, Karen!

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  8. Add me to the "me, too" bunch. "Don't give up", written in Muriel Jensen's own hand, was thumb-tacked to my desk for years. When I finally lost the note, the ink had faded beyond readability, but I still knew it was there. I loved your post!

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  9. Thanks, Liz! Your note does sound like great encouragement and really good advice for all of us. Don't give up!

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  10. I think we've all suffered what you're going through. In one class I took, I read a story I'd written about my mother's depression and eventual death. One comment: It was such a nice story. Why did you have to make her die at the end? Sometimes the point you're trying to get across goes right over another person's head.

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  11. Yep, I am right there with you! It is so hard sometimes, I often wonder what the heck I was thinking. I can't do this! Then, inspiration hits and I'm off and running. Glad to know I am not alone :)

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