To start off my first yoga class of 2022, instructor Liz Oliver set an intention that she gently suggested we apply to the next hour—or maybe to the entire new year: Trust Yourself. A few days later, I sat down at my desk to begin a shiny new year of writing—and realized it applied there as well.
I accomplished a lot in 2021, including the three milestones I wrote about a few weeks ago. What I didn’t finish was the first draft of my next novel. Even if I hadn’t had a busier year than expected, it was probably never a realistic goal; my story development process just can’t be packaged up and spit out over a set series of morning writing sessions. Like a rich stew, it has to simmer without too much active attention, while I focus on something besides writing: working with my hands, or navigating around a race course.
I feel like I know my characters well, but they still shy away from obvious scrutiny, appearing most clearly at the very edges of my vision. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to let them come to me on their own schedule—especially when they are just as likely to lead me astray as to point me toward The End.
I keep thinking that by book number five I should be “better” at directing these headstrong folks. But the best days of writing are when they are directing their own stories. So even though “better” might mean “deeper,” it certainly doesn’t mean “faster.”
Cry Me a Winding River
I’ve written about this before, of course, attempting to explain how my imagination works. For me, story development is like navigating a winding and many-branched river without a chart: I know there’s a main channel that leads to The End, but at this stage it’s impossible to differentiate that route from all the tempting tributaries that don’t actually lead anywhere. On my best days, I understand that dead ends are a necessary part of honing a character’s true motivation; on my worst days, I berate my inefficient process—which is, of course, about as useful as berating myself for being right-handed.
For the past year, aided and abetted by an Advanced Novel Planning course, I’ve been trying to develop a more efficient workflow. Again, I’ve tried this before, back when I was struggling to finish the first draft of Ferry to Cooperation Island. It didn’t work then, either; perhaps I could’ve saved myself some 2021 aggravation by rereading a 2011 blog post that describes my post-outlining frustrations as “when my story drifted onto the rocks.” After two weeks away from that project (another similarity to right now), I realized: “No matter how efficient it might seem or what I call myself, outlining obviously doesn’t work for me.” (Read more in Labels, Float Plans, and Writer’s Block)
New Year, Old Tricks
So here I am again, at the start of another shiny new year, acknowledging that my not-particularly-shiny approach to story creation is the only way I will finish the next novel. Others backed me up on this, of course, as soon as I shared my frustration. “Books take the time they need to be written,” my agent sagely advised. “Don’t beat yourself up, but don’t let the project go dormant either,” a writer friend added. “Hard writing, easy reading,” Blue Robinson reminded. And finally, at the dawn of 2022, Liz Oliver placed her cherry of advice on the very top of my writerly struggles: Trust Yourself.
Writing as an act of faith
In some yoga practices, Liz explained, the front of the body is considered the ego; the back is our faith, because we can’t see it. During the class, we repeatedly reached for our raised back foot—an act of faith, since we can’t see those fingers grabbing that instep. (For more info on Liz and her studio, visit Island Heron Yoga.)
As a writer, I have to trust my own grab for that next plot point. Even though I can’t see it coming or describe how the connection finally happens, I have to trust the process—even though it will undoubtedly include many more dead ends.
So as I sit down at my old desk to begin a shiny new work year, I am taking Liz’s advice to heart. Whatever I accomplish each morning, I will Trust Myself to write a book I’m truly proud of. It worked for the last four books, and it will, eventually, work for this one—though it will also, of course, take far, far longer than I think it “should.”