When It’s All a Pile of Sh* * *

Has it happened to you?  You’ve worked hard and with good heart all day.  Your manuscript seems to be going well.  Before you step away, you go back to reread your day’s output, and you’re satisfied.  More than satisfied, maybe.  You are really pleased.  Your words sing.  You can feel their music deep in your belly.

You wake the next morning.  Sunrise, breakfast, birds scrabbling at the feeder. You return to your work with the same good heart that carried you through the day before.  Before you can write the next line, though, before you can imagine the next word, you do what you do every morning.  You pause to reread the newest pages, to get back into the rhythm of the piece.

But . . . surprise!  Those pages have mutated during the night!  How could you have been pleased with this?  Only now can you see clearly.  It’s all a pile of sh***!

Credit: Alvimann | morguefile.com

Even after all these years of writing, all these years of publishing, I still find myself upended from time to time when in the midst of working on a manuscript.

In the early stages of my career, I often made a mistake that contributed to that kind of upending.  When I finished writing for the day, I would set the pages next to my typewriter—yes, it was a typewriter then, by today’s standards an instrument only slightly more advanced than a quill pen—I would set the pages next to my typewriter and move into the demands of my evening.  Making supper, checking homework, baths and pajamas and night-time stories.

Throughout the evening, though, I would find myself detouring through my study.  (It wasn’t much of a detour.  My study was a convenient passageway for everyone in the family to everyplace else in the house, but that’s another story.)  And truth be told, the detour didn’t occur just once or twice.  I detoured again and again through the evening.  Every time I passed my typewriter and that newly minted stack of pages, I paused, picked them up, and read them.  That’s rather nice, I would say to myself. And you did it!

Then I’d return to the demands of house and children, content.

You can guess what happened the next morning when I sat down to my work.  I would pick up those same pages, read them in preparation for climbing back into my story, and find that they were dead, flat, terrible . . . a pile of sh**!  It was as though I had sucked all the life out of them the evening before.

The solution to that one was easy.  I learned not to peek at my new work again until the next time I’m ready to work.  That way the pages stay fresh.

So I no longer read and reread my work in progress when I’m not working on it.  But even without that, my perception of it can change radically from day to day.  That has been especially true with my memoir.  Some days when I go back to read I can say, quite objectively, “This works.”  And some days I sit down at the computer, pull up the manuscript . . . and want to throw up.

I don’t like anything I see.  My language, my form, my topics.  Especially I don’t like the person I’m writing about!

Solution?  Perhaps I should read some self-help books on building self-esteem.  But I have so many other more important books I want to read.  And I’m not sure self-esteem is a permanent commodity, anyway.

I could take my emotional temperature, make sure it registers high-regard, before I allow myself access to the manuscript.  But how easily that could turn into an excuse for not writing anything at all!

Or perhaps I should simply remind myself that my father was right, that it is absolutely disgusting to talk about myself this way.  That would be an easy way to decide to discard months, years of work.  But truth be told, part of my reason for writing the memoir was to undo some of my father’s truths.

So instead I do, day after day, what most of us do.  I keep muddling through.  I’ve discovered, after all, that my disdain for my writing or for my story’s main character isn’t usually permanent.

Or when the yuck factor is especially strong I set the whole thing aside in favor of walking the dog.  Or having lunch with a friend.  Or writing a blog.  Then I come back to it later.

Most of these solutions work pretty well, but sometimes I still find myself wondering.

Am I the only one?  Does anyone else wake up on a sunny morning and find work that was perfectly fine the day before has turned into a pile of sh**?

6 thoughts on “When It’s All a Pile of Sh* * *

  1. Uma Krishnaswami

    “And I’m not sure self-esteem is a permanent commodity, anyway.” I love that! So true. These things shift within us as the writing shifts on the page. I’m beginning to think that if I don’t go through this phase at least once in the lifetime of a book it simply means I’m not going deep enough. But as you help me see this morning, it doesn’t help to know that. You have to feel it all over again with each new work.

  2. juliewilliamsauthor

    You’ve done it again! Written exactly what I needed to read this morning. Yes, oh yes. That happens to me, too. And it seems like because it doesn’t happen all the time (thank goodness) when it does happen the potential to be de-railed from the work is much greater. Thank you especially for this: “But truth be told, part of my reason for writing the memoir was to undo some of my father’s truths.” Yes. For me, it’s my mother’s truths. And it’s often her critical voice I hear when the work doesn’t live up to my expectations. And yet I’m sure you’ve had the opposite happen, too, haven’t you? With me it’s my poems. I’ll draft something and think it’s a piece of cr** and then read it a couple weeks for months later when I’m mining poems from my notebook and discover there’s more there than I first thought. Those moments are gems and part of what keep me going. Like the gems in your blog keep me going! Thank you so much.

  3. Norma Gaffron

    Ah, yes.
    Advice/comments I’ve been given through the years: “Write it, then freeze it for a few days.” or
    “I liked your first draft better.” and so on.

    There was something really satisfying in the old days about crumbling up a page of paper and throwing it at the wastebasket. Now my conscience says to recycle it in the bin in the garage. Not nearly as satisfying.*

    * A lot like not being able to slam down the receiver on the phone anymore…

    1. Alden F Cheney

      Uh-huh. Ripping a sheet from the typewriter carriage and slam dunking into the wastebasket. No better catharsis. But those were the days when rewriting was the result of failure. Now I enjoy working long and hard with a piece until we’re both in the same place. In time, pieces of shit will grow good strawberries.


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