Writing Tools (Bright and Dark)

A few weeks ago, I showed you all the book map that I built for my office wall. This tool has proven itself to be invaluable. I consult it constantly as I’m working. It’s a stupendous structural aid as I reorder the events of this book and refocus the plot. I WANT TO MARRY IT.

However, as the sight of it recently made a writer friend depressed (“I could never do that,” the friend said), I feel I should add that this is the first book I’ve ever been able to do it for. This book is short (for me) and relatively simple. Had I tried to stick a plot map on my wall for Bitterblue, it would’ve taken an enormous amount of time that would have been better spent writing, it would’ve been more confusing than helpful, plus, I wouldn’t have had enough wall space.

Each book is different and requires its own unique tools.


That being said, I’ve finally come to accept that one particular unenjoyable aspect of writing is going to be present with every single book: the sense of urgency. The feeling that I need to keep going and can never stop, that I need to finish this book RIGHT NOW; the feeling that I’m behind schedule, that I’m not going to make my deadline. Granted, sometimes I feel that last way because it’s true, but the thing is, I always feel like I’m going to miss my deadline, whether or not it’s true and whether or not I even have a deadline. There’s always at least an arbitrary deadline in my mind. This is perfectly reasonable – the more you write, the more you appreciate how disruptive big interruptions, like long trips or (even the shortest of) public events, can be – how hard it can be to get back into a project once you’ve succumbed to a distraction – and consequently, the more you feel a drive to finish your current project before the next such interruption. But you can start to forget that your deadline is in fact arbitrary, and worse, you can start to forget that in order to be the best book it can be, your book needs to be allowed to take however long it takes. The harder you work, the harder you need to play, and the more you need to rest.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize that I always, at every moment, feel like I’m not writing fast enough. Now that I’ve noticed it, I’m sure I’ll keep feeling it, but I think it might cause me less distress. It’s just one of the ways writing feels; it’s a voice, but a voice that lies; and it’s just another tool in the toolbox. I’m sure it serves some purpose; it’s the shadow, the darker side of the drive that allows a writer to embark successfully on enormous solo projects. We can’t expect to benefit from the happier aspect of a personal quality – ambition, drive, motivation – and never be touched by its darker side.


Speaking of which: I absolutely loved Oliver Burkeman’s opinion piece in the New York Times on the positive power of negative thinking. Go negativity! (And thanks, CW.) It reminded me my favorite chapter in a beautiful book. The chapter is called “The Gifts of Depression” and the book is Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. It’s about giving yourself permission to feel how you feel; dealing with horrible, scary feelings by leaning into them instead of trying to push them away. If that sounds strange and wrong, trust that Moore explains it a lot better than I do; check it out if you’re interested.


Finally, and apropos of absolutely nothing, it occurred to me today in a rainstorm that it’s possible there are people in the world who don’t know the song “Love and Affection” by Joan Armatrading.  That would not be okay. As the teacher (in a story my dad told me) yells at her students,  “LEARN!” Also — embracing randomness and thematic disintegration — while looking for that clip, I stumbled upon this clip from the West Wing. If you know the show, it involves a performance of “The Little Drummer Boy” and Toby arranging for a military funeral with honor guard for a homeless veteran. Warning that it may make you weepy, especially if you know the back stories (and future stories) of the characters involved.