Discarded writing drafts

The daughter of a friend reached out to me recently, seeking a bit of advice. She’s a young millennial and, after dabbling in various dabbles, she’s come back around to an early passion: Writing. Her father, whom I’ve known since high school, nudged her in my direction, hoping perhaps that I’d nudge her toward a reputable career — and one that pays the bills.

I’ll get back to her and try to help. But not yet. Not until I get through a muddled writing project of my own. Not until I’m past the place where I want to tell her that, given a do-over, I’d rather do pretty much anything but write for a living. Sword swallowing comes to mind.

It’s good for me to have to actually write as I pretend to give other people writing advice or dare to edit their writing. The essay nagging at me should be a cakewalk. I’m confident of the subject. I know the key points I want to make, and have plenty of examples to back them up — too many, actually, but that’s just a matter of batting them out, selecting the best, and cutting the extras. I’ve long since accepted the need to ditch my darlings, and can tell when I’m attached to a pretty paragraph that has to go.

And yet I am stuck, with swords at my throat. I’ve already blown a deadline — a sin I’ve committed maybe five times in my career. The professional in me has set aside any shred of pride and kept my editor informed, with apologies but no excuses. If he asked to see the mess that is my incomplete and too-long draft, I’d walk out to the back yard, stick my head in the birdbath, then come back to the keyboard and hit the send button. Maybe he’d respond with divine inspiration — or a ruthless intervention. I’d welcome anything that helps.

Meanwhile, I muddle. I’ll get through it, and not complain about the ruined weekend. The humility of being this stuck will fade once I’ve finished and back in blissful editing mode. The lessons I’ve had to learn again will also fade with time, but for now, they blink like neon. I’m happy to share:

  • Writing is hard. Good writing is super hard. It’s lonely and doesn’t tolerate dilettantes or distractions. It’s you and the messy ideas in your head and the blinking cursor of the keyboard. There is no rescue.
  • At the same time, people can help: a sharp editor or a friend who will listen to your whines and then offer no-bullshit insights. Don’t make excuses for your lapse. Don’t argue against their advice. Just listen and ask good questions and take notes. Then get back to work. Rewrite what confused them; cut what bored them.
  • If you’re an editor or teacher or coach, you need to write now and then. What you write shouldn’t try to compete with the work of your staffers or students. A lot of them might be better than you, which should give you joy. But you need to dip back into your own original writing now and again to remember what that work takes.
  • No matter how often you write, or how good you are, you also have to remember that sometimes you won’t be very good. World-class athletes and rock-star musicians have their off days. So, too, writers. The only way through the sludge is to keep going through it, one keyboard stroke at a time. And yes, a lot of those strokes will land on the delete key.
  • Keep it simple. Forgetting that is probably what’s got me tangled up. I’m trying to connect all the dots, pull all the threads, on a big idea. Not possible, and not useful to the reader. I have to go back to a singular line or question that is part of the idea, find an engaging doorway that opens to it, then get on with it.
  • When all else fails — and it will — remember the Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off. Go for a walk or a run or a bike ride. Fold some laundry or mop the floor. Then get your butt back in that chair and slog forward.

I have no wisdom for the part about writing that pays the bills.


A version of this essay was first published as the Nieman Storyboard newsletter on April 23, 2021.

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