September 18, 2014
Trust the Process
Rewind: it’s my first residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m there to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Let’s be honest: I’m there to get a stamp of approval. This will change, although stamps of approval are nice and they really should use them. By the end of the residency, I’m there to hang out with my tribe and be reminded of why I love what I do. And have my mind blown at least once a day. Because it’s that kind of place.
There’s a mixer between the 1st and 2nd semester students in which the second semesters try to explain how this is all going to work. This is tradition and at VCFA, we love tradition. Low-residency programs are still pretty unusual and everyone in my class had their huh? face on. It was, to say the least, a frustrating event, not the least of which because nobody seemed to be able to answer my questions to my satisfaction. What happens if you get an advisor that you don’t like? How exactly are you going to learn by yourself – what are we PAYING for? Instead, they gave us this bag:
“Trust the process.” I would hear this time and time again at VCFA. Trust. The. Process. Sometimes people would use those exact words and sometimes Tim Wynne-Jones would give you a look that said them well enough. For someone like me (neurotic, planner, over-achiever, perfectionist) this was a little hard to swallow. First, that word trust. Hmmmm. Not so much. There are very few things I trust in this world. That’s not a cynic talking, that’s the girl who looks at flight crash statistics and instead of being comforted by the fact that more car crashes occur than plane crashes (HELLO! Who thinks that’s comforting?), she sees that small percentage and thinks, well someone’s gonna bite it…
Process—that other word. Now, I like it. I’m into rituals and planning and a process says there’s a way to do something, yes? Like, baking. First you put the flour, then you add the sugar, and if you do it all in the correct order you have cookies. Well, most people have cookies. I often got weird blobs of indistinguishable glub. But still. It’s a process that works for most people. I like thinking of writing as a process, art as a process. First, it shows that it isn’t perfect right away, that there’s a whittling that occurs, that you are crafting something. It also suggests that if there is a process, then there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. The process, just like my novel, will end.
Of course, writing is messier than that. It’s not baking cookies. It’s like flinging words all over a dark room and then going around to look for one specific word, only you can’t find it for the longest time because it’s under the couch, chilling with the dust balls. “Process”—HA! This summer, I got my MFA but I am far from feeling like a master. Sometimes I feel like I know my shit, but generally speaking, I am groping around in the dark, searching for that word under the couch—or a character, the plot, or that point for writing the novel in the first place...This summer I felt like someone had put a voodoo curse on me, making it impossible for me to care about anything that I wrote. I struggled. I pushed. I tried to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. And suddenly…I remembered that yellow bag given to me by the second semesters. I remembered “Trust the Process.” I wrote it on a card and tacked it to the board above my desk. Somewhere inside, I knew it was true. I thought about my other books and their ups and downs. Trusting, though, was hard. My process was looking like tearing my hair out and wanting to give up. It was looking like a trip up Self Doubt Creek. It was looking like failure. In the background, I could hear my husband saying, “This is how it always is when you’re working on something new, when you’re between books…” but I didn’t listen. Because I was a MASTER now: this was not what my “process” was supposed to look like!
But that is, actually, exactly what my process looks like. I’ve just never been able to trust it because, frankly, my process is terrifying. My process should be outlawed. My process feels like crap. This is my process:
I’ve finished a book. Yay! I’m feeling pretty great (side note: I imagine books are like having babies – when you see them there with ten fingers and ten toes, you forget how awful it was to birth them and how uncomfortable that pregnancy was, so you, dolt, think let’s do it again!). So. I’ve finished my book and it’s with my editor and tra-la-la, I think, hmmmm, what shall my next project be? At this point, I’ve got a few things I’d been fiddling with while I was finishing my book and I take them out and look at them. I get really excited about one and sometimes that lasts for an hour and sometimes that lasts for a week. Then I hate it, it’s hopeless, I’ll never write again. I look at a different project, maybe one much older that I gave up on years ago. It’s like seeing an ex-boyfriend with rose-colored glasses. You remember them fondly, but then you start thinking about all the reasons you broke up with them in the first place. I dump the old story again. Then I’ll try something new, grasping at any straw the universe shoves my way. Yes! This is it. A day or two later: utter dejection. No. This is NOT it. I do this again and again, day in and day out, the worry increasing, self-loathing at its highest point. I am not an artist. I’m a hack. I reek of desperation—you could smell me all the way from Finland. Sometimes I get my poor agent excited with an idea and then I shoot it down. Sometimes my editor hears about it and I put my head on my desk in shame when I realize I can’t do it. Sometimes I worry out loud to my writer friends with frantic Facebook posts on our private page and I talk my husband’s ear off and then my friend Kathryn has to call me because she is worried. This can last for months. I’m depressed. Like, very. And I think everything sucks except maybe my husband and chocolate.
Then…a glimmer. That glimmer may come from anything, anywhere. Fear or a dream or something. It doesn’t necessarily come from a good place (re: fear). But it comes. It always does. The glimmer is a groove I fall into with a story. It somehow latches onto me – I picture it as this organism, a Glimmer that burrows under my skin. It’s kinda gross actually, but there you have it, that’s writing, folks. It ain’t pretty. And I stay there for a while—in this groove. I live with it. Try it on for size. And I realize that my excitement about the story is not a manic, desperate burst, but a long term kind of hope because I’m starting to care about the characters and the plot’s sort of working. I write some more. Then some more. I get past the critical 100 page mark (where I often give up on something if I’m not feeling it). I don’t think it’d be terrible to read this a million times and try to convince other people to read it, too. I…HAVE MY NEW PROJECT!
And that, camerados, is my process. I went through it this summer and it was only just last week that I was finally able to settle on my next work-in-progress. You can see how I was feeling during that in this post. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to be comfortable with my process. It’s probably not meant to be comfortable. And I know I have the long, hard road of actually finishing the book, but from experience I can say that the hardest part is over and I’m grateful for that. It wasn’t fun. Not one bit. I wish I could be one of those people who joyfully explore possibilities for story, but settling on a new book is, for me, like trekking through Antarctica.
If this happens every time…can I trust it? Can I trust this process even when it’s awful? Can I trust I will have my next story by the end of it? Can I trust myself? The honest answer is…I don’t know. Because every book feels so different in the making, it can be hard to see the pattern of the process. My hope is that next time, there can be a little more joy, a little less fear, and a lot more acceptance.
Rewind: it’s my first residency at VCFA. I fill a bag that says Trust the Process with notebooks and pens and hope. Then I put it on my shoulder, and head outside.
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