Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thirty Years in the Carpenter’s Shop—Or, Hidden Preparation

Several of us have been thinking lately in terms of “breaking out” in our writing lives. No, not in poison ivy, although it is that season. But in terms of making some Big New Things Happen in our writing and our approach to same. As in, “This will be my breakout book.” Or, “It’s time I broke out of this rut.” Or, “Now that I’ve broken away from this genre…now what?” Some of us get a little panicky at this point, and with good reason (at least in our own minds). Many of us, after all, are of the Day Planner generation—if we’re not being productive (i.e. jumping right into the next book the moment we type THE END on this one), we’re wasting time, and we cannot afford to do this! We “owe” the world productivity for taking up space (!), and we owe our God the maximum output from the gifts we have. (Who can forget Erma Bombeck’s line, so frequently quoted, about hoping that she didn’t have a speck of talent left at the end of her life, because she used it all up? ‘Nuff said.) Some of us, however, get panicky for another reason entirely—the not totally unfounded fear that the writing and publishing world is passing us by. And not because we’re writing to a trend that’s going to be “so yesterday” by later this afternoon, but because we are surrounded by other writers who are selling, some of them at a rate that leaves us breathless. One particular writer I know has gone from getting her first contract last fall to being able to finish her e-mail signature with a list of three or four books already contracted, and another one pending. I get whiplash just thinking about it. When this kind of thing happens, I feel many other things, too. None of them good. I start out somewhere around “Ohmyword.” From there, I go quickly to “For Pete’s sake, leave some contracts for someone else,” and it’s only a short trip before I land somewhere in the skids of “Well, obviously, I missed the secret handshake meeting again.” (Otherwise known as the Slough of Writer Despond.) Now, putting aside for a moment whether I should be rejoicing for this woman (of course) and what’s keeping me from doing so (easy answer, tough problem to lick)…what’s putting me into said despond slough? The fact that I don’t have four books ready to go. To anyone. Anywhere. In any shape. And I won’t have that many ready to go for quite some time…especially since I’m doing some “breaking out” of my own. And there’s the rub. We who experience these jealousies, panics, and whiplashes are both forgetful of, and overly conscious of, the element of being prepared to move to that next step. Laying groundwork. Doing research. Learning new ways of approaching our art. Refilling the well. Tending to our spirits. Resting. Writing. Experimenting. Finding, perhaps, a new creative rhythm and voice. And we forget—or we want to deny—that all of that takes time. Why? In a word, because we’re scared we don’t have that time. The publishing world continually reinforces this notion of scarcity: not enough time, shrinking markets, diminishing opportunities for those who aren’t poised on the very edge of caffeine, ready to leap. Serendipity is amenable to dipping her hand into the magic dust and sprinkling it on us, but we gotta be out there for it to happen. Preparation work isn’t the work that gets us out there. It’s work that’s done within. In our own writers’ caves, if you will. But Serendipity doesn’t make cave calls, and we all know it. So we’re torn. We want that magic dust, and we want it to be the real thing, but we begrudge spending time in a fallow place while our Muse regroups herself. We don’t want to noodle around with six or eight or fifteen or twenty-three or fifty-seven ideas that don’t go anywhere; we want to get right to that magic #412 idea—the one that’s going to be The Book That Makes Our Name—as soon as possible, preferably yesterday, thank you very much, and while you’re at it, yes, I would like fries with that. And make it snappy. Too bad that’s not how craft really works. Success in the writing craft, as in most other areas, truly is a matter of “preparation meeting opportunity.” (And dumb luck, and the stars aligning, and the secret handshake, and…oh, wait. Never mind.) But we need to understand the true nature of “preparation” if we’re going to hit our own dose of magic dust. Preparation is dog work. It’s time-consuming. Sometimes, it’s frightening. Certainly, it’s unpaid. But it’s really, really necessary to take enough time to lay the right foundations. To make sure we’re working toward what our true place, our true voice, and our true niche in the craft is, not necessarily what all the “experts” tell us we “ought to” do. But it’s hidden work. And, at times, it can look like we’re doing “nothing” to get ourselves ahead. As a consequence, sometimes that outside world is going to ask us pointed questions. Or we're going to ask ourselves the pointed questions and worry because of what we think that world is thinking of us. But if we’re truly going to “break through,” we dare not try to shortcut the process. If we doubt this, all we have to do is look at the Lord and Master himself, who took thirty years to prepare for His “real” work. Think about that. Thirty years. How many of us have that kind of patience? That wasn’t thirty years of practice-preaching in pulpits, teaching VBS, or working in a soup kitchen, either—works that, had they existed, would have been good preparation for the life of itinerant preacher and healer. On the contrary; Jesus not only didn’t hang around the synagogue day and night and get labeled a “holy person,” but if anything, He did the opposite: He hung around Dad’s workshop and built tables and shelves and cabinets. Talk about a fallow period! And what happened when He finally left the woodworking tools behind and started calling fishermen? His own hometown pooh-poohed him for exactly the reason that we’re talking about: He was Mary and Joseph’s son, just a carpenter, nothing special. Who did He think He was? Well, of course, what mattered wasn’t what His hometown thought of Him. Or even what He thought He was. What mattered was what God His Father was preparing Him to be. And what He was preparing to be, and to do, was something no one else could do—something that gave life to all the rest of us. If that wasn’t a magnificent “breakout,” nothing was. We, too, can provide our own kind of “life” for people with the words we write. We, too, have the capability to tell stories we haven’t yet imagined. But we have to be willing to wait for them to come. To resist the temptation to jump out of the cave and try to do the Big Thing too fast, too soon, or in a way that isn’t true to the writer God made us to be. We have to be willing to sacrifice the good for the best, something that’s never easy…especially not in what seems to be an ever-more-competitive and ever-narrower world like writing and publishing. But if we can calm ourselves, yield that crazy world and our crazy craft to God and let Him handle it, I truly believe we have a much better chance of finding the wide, open road that we’re meant to walk and the niche we’re meant to fill. It’s a big challenge, but He’s up to if it we are. The question is, how “hidden” are you willing to be? How abandoned to what He wants you to do? If He were to tell you it was going to take thirty years to get you to where He wanted you to be as a writer, would you be willing and able to let Him take that time? Thoughts? Janny


Deb said...

Good. You blogged. I was on the verge of blog-withdrawal.

And you get extra points for drawing our attention to what should be obvious. Not the "OMW, that author sold 4 books and she's not half the writer I am" syndrome. Booh to that. There's always gonna be someone more successful, richer, and with better hair. Oh, sure, I get twinges--after all, I'm out here selling to small presses when there's such DRECK being pubbed by the big ones. I have my moments.

But the focus of your post, for me, was the "grunt work" part. I tend to want to write "The End" and in fact have done so prior to actually finishing the story. And story rules all--we keep repeating that ad infinitum, so it must be true, right? Right?

(If you still have doubts at this time, refer to my blog for the Plain Truth.)

I'm wired together that way. I've learned, however, in the years I've been writing, to work around that flawed circuit. If God uses that path to make the creative juice flow more effectively, that's His smarts at work, not mine.

Now, let's go see if we can apply this wisdom to the Work-In-Progress...

Donna Alice said...

This makes a lot of sense to me because I had been writing about 30 plus years when I sold my first book last July. It took me ten years to write my first book. The book that sold took two, then a year of doing revisions, publisher moving, etc. It should be out in the fall. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Guess I've reached the point where I know it's all going to happen in God's timing and I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

Deb said...

Good 'tude, Donna Alice! We're looking forward to enjoying the trip with you.