The Road of Trials

The Road of Trials

“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”

― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces


I’ve been rather introspective lately, about what being a writer, what the act of writing means to me. I’m coming to the end of my third draft of my current work-in-progress (now my fourth finished book), and every single page has been a struggle. My last post for the Scriptors touched on that a bit, and it’s been such a maddeningly difficult book that I honestly wonder if it’s cursed.

There have been times in the last few months, while editing the novel, when I’ve wondered why I torture myself like this. Half the time, I feel like I’m creating my own difficulties, seeing the book I have written and feeling unsatisfied with it, knowing that I can do better. So I tweak and rewrite and delete entire subplots, and it snowballs, it expands, like a never-ending, ever-changing fractal. With this change comes that change, and before I know it, the “polishing up” that I thought would take me four to six weeks has now taken me almost three months. So I’m left wondering: Why do I try so hard? Why do I agonize over a single sentence for three days and still end up unsatisfied? Why can’t I just let it go?

In my last post, I talked about the gap between writing the book you have the ability to write, yet seeing what it could be if only you were better. The perfectionist in me sees that indefinite “better” and isn’t satisfied until I obtain it. But it’s unobtainable, always moving ahead of what I can achieve, seemingly just out of reach. If I could only stretch a little further…

Yet every time I stretch my fingers, it moves further away.

Only, I wonder… Am I slightly closer than before?

And so I keep stretching, keep reaching, keep trying to obtain the level of writing I think I should be able to produce, and aiming for that goal causes me to write better, to edit better, gradually improving my craft with each failed attempt. But at the same time, I feel as if I’ll always be reaching, never satisfied. So, why do I do this? Why do I look at my work, trying to find flaws to improve? Why am I so obsessed with editing the book I have in front of me into the book it could be?

The short answer… I don’t know.

The much longer, rambling version that will probably not come to any definable conclusion…

I’m a very cinematic writer. When I write a scene, I envision the setting, the characters, their facial expressions and dialogue and what they’re wearing, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and anything else that might be within that frame of reference for the scene, and then let it unfold in my mind as I try to transcribe it to the page. I pause and restart and play lines of dialogue over and over again with each sentence I write, tweaking it slightly as I go.

(This is why my first drafts are often really bloated, because I try to describe every tiny detail as I see it, every micro-expression, every twitch of movement, every visceral emotion, every smell and taste and texture my characters experience. I dump it all out onto the page. And then spend the second draft meticulously pruning out every damn sigh and gulp and rapid heartbeat… but that’s the easy stuff.)

But then there are times, while viewing this weird imagination-movie in in my head, I pause the story and stare at the same freeze-frame for several minutes, wondering what’s missing, why my imagination isn’t coming up with the right details. I can see it in my head, but no, that’s not quite right. And this is especially true in edits, because as I’m reading the words I’ve written, I’m constantly asking myself: Could this be better? How? So I’m reading and reshaping and restructuring, trying to alter a reality that has already passed a hundred times through my brain, trying to pick out the best pieces and shape them into something that carries across all the gravitas that I can somehow feel at a deeper level in my consciousness, far deeper than the simple visualization and transcription of these hallucinatory thoughts.

It’s that deeper connection to a scene that I’m looking for, when I edit—all the way down to the sentence level. I’m looking for that oomph kind of feeling, that YES kind of feeling, where everything clicks into place just so. And this isn’t some specific paragon of quality or some definable thing I’m aiming for. It’s a sort of deep, quintessential type of knowing.

So when I read a scene that I’ve written and it’s lacking that, I have to wonder if I can find it somewhere, hidden in the depths of my subconscious, lurking like this invisible thing that you can feel just beyond your sight, like that prickle at the back of your neck when you think someone’s watching you, but you turn and no one’s there. I just have to find it and drag it out into the light of day and turn it into words. So I search and I search and sometimes, I do find it. Sometimes it’s just there, at the tip of my tongue, and I wrangle it out of my brain space and get it to the page with a singular aha! moment. Like finding just the right word to convey the exact thought that’s in your head.

But more often than not, it’s this elusive thing that lurks always out of sight, like this missing puzzle piece that somehow jumped into another dimension and left no trace of it ever existing at all. I don’t know what it looks like or where to find it or if I’ll even know what it is when I do. It’s almost mythical, this feeling, and I’m the unsuspecting hero that has to delve into the dark, magical labyrinth and hunt it down. Only the labyrinth is my mind and I have no map and I can’t see and the floors are gone and the walls are moving and I’m falling and oh god—

So I ask myself again: Why do I do this?

What am I aiming for? Really?

Is it perfection? No, I don’t think so. I’m not trying to write to some standardized paradigm of quality. I’m not trying to write a New York Times Bestseller (though, no lie, that would be nice). Do I do this because I want readers to connect to my stories? Maybe. That could be part of it, yes, but really, deep down, I’m not doing this for my readers. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it because I have to. Because I’m unsatisfied if I don’t find that thing that makes a scene, a sentence, a character suddenly come alive. I do it because I’m incapable of not doing it. I cannot refuse the call to adventure. Even knowing the dangers and the twists and the traps that lay ahead, I have to plunge headfirst into the labyrinth and find the thing I’m looking for. I have to. Or else I come to the end of the adventure unfulfilled, always wondering if I could have done better. Knowing I could have done better.

Is that my heroic fault? My fatal flaw? Needing to throw myself completely into the adventure, even when it’s hard, even when it’s downright maddening, so that I find that inner peace, that satisfaction that comes with knowing I did everything in my power to make this book the absolute best it could be?

Is that such a bad flaw to have?

Because despite the difficulties, despite all the headaches and the disappointment and the feelings of dissatisfaction, when I do find that singular epiphany, it’s… it just is. It’s not a thing you can hold in your hand or put into words, but it’s there. It exists. And its existence is that thing that I strive for, that I spend hour after hour agonizing over.

And for a few moments, I’ve reached the edge of nirvana.

So that’s why I do it, I suppose. Because all the struggles are worth it for that fleeting moment of peace, that satisfaction.

In that moment, I am the writer I want to be.

Brooke Johnson

Brooke Johnson

Brooke is a stay-at-home mom, amateur seamstress, RPG enthusiast, and art hobbyist, in addition to all that book writing. She's the author of The Brass Giant, a YA steampunk novel from Harper Voyager Impulse, and Dark Lord in Training, a middle-grade fantasy, as well as several other projects in the works.
Brooke Johnson

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  1. Were you the writer you wanted to be when you looked back over this? It’s a pretty awesome piece for something you sort of billed as word-babble on G+. It makes me happy to think that the struggles I read about as you try to push through “cursed” works with wave after wave of edits are leading to moments of epiphany :)

    I wonder though if there is another way forward to those moments. Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly not an expert on it, but I’ll relate something about how I overcame some of my own “curses” on the odd chance it’ll help.

    My picture is on the wall at the very front of my hometown high school. Not with the regular class photos, but by myself in a big gold frame. Just a picture of me, wearing all black, leaning against a tree. It’s sitting over top of the entryway to the gym, around the corner from all the football players and band members and track stars who went all-state. It’s there because I went all-state in the only Missouri High School Athletic Association event that isn’t a physical sport- something called Campus Bowl. It’s a quiz competition sort of like Jeopardy, but with two teams of 4 players.

    People who know me now aren’t surprised that I did well at something like that, as I read a lot of odd things and remember them fairly well. I believe I’m seen as a bit “quick-witted” nowadays, so people aren’t surprised when they discover that individual scoring in the game required extreme speed. However, as a kid, it was strange for me to be the one speaking out in a high pressure situation… especially in front of people.

    Unless I was cursing and stomping off.

    I was more than nervous in social situations, I was downright terrified. I was more than awkward, I was (and sort of still am) totally clueless about other people’s feelings and motivations. I didn’t know or care to know how to act in public, but I was worried nonetheless than I’d do the wrong things. Campus Bowl was tough in part because it required me to dress up in the sort of things nobody in my family wore and I absolutely hated. It was hard because I was on a team, largely consisting of the sort of people I didn’t enjoy hanging out with. It was hard because I was sitting in front of a crowd, oddly enough a fairly large one as my career went along. We became a popular event over the years.

    Mostly though it was hard because my whole team was penalized if I made a mistake. We basically lost points if I rang in on a toss-up and got it wrong. You had to ring in early to get the point yourself, but doing so locked out the rest of your team and gave the other team a chance to listen to the whole question and answer at some leisure. In some cases it would give the other side points through the process of elimination. Those considered good payers not only had high points, but they had high accuracy on their personal toss-ups and cooperated well with their team-mates.

    I couldn’t do that. I guess it’s different than not being able to write what you consider a proper description of a cinematic vision in your head, but your description made me think of this so there must be some similarity. For me it was like some sort of vapor lock as I tried to find the perfect moment and perfect certainty for my actions. I couldn’t get along with my team well enough to understand them. I couldn’t focus on just one area of study. I couldn’t sense cues from others when they were going to ring in and I couldn’t time myself to ring in at the point where others thought enough of the question had been asked. If I worried about accuracy, i.e. thought about perfection, I was cursed.

    I was OK, in the big scheme of things. While “cursed” I could score as much as my teammates. I was the best now and then, but not spectacular. But I was also miserable.

    So I decided not to worry about perfection. Perhaps initially as an experiment, I just said the hell with it and started answering when I wanted to. What I wanted to. As often as I wanted to. I ignored my coach and my teammates. I ignored rules and common sense. I became fantastic. It took a bit to not get kicked out of games for doing it, but eventually the fact that I always led our team convinced my coach to go with it.

    I wasn’t the best there ever was, but I was better than anybody had ever been at my particular school. Maybe I was better than anybody else has been since. I hear one of the new guys got his picture on the wall after I left, but not with the sort of spectacular results I’d often have.

    I sometimes scored more than the rest of my team put together. Sometimes more than the rest of both teams. Sometimes I was the only person to score. I took everyone else’s points, but I took their mistakes too. A great player might have 200 points with 85% accuracy. I’d come out of a match with 800 at 60%. It was rare for me to be bested, and the people who did so were absolute geniuses. I was terrible and brilliant at the same time, because I discovered that the secret was VOLUME.

    I was the monkey at a typewriter, desperately seeking Shakespeare. The high frequency trader who makes a billion dollars being right only 51% of the time. I was just as far from perfection and those moments where I was the player I knew I could be were pretty rare and special, but god damn it if I wasn’t impressive too. I did it with volume. My home runs were sort of rare amidst the strike-outs, but damn were there lot of balls out in the parking lot when the final inning came around.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’d LOVE to see a Brooke Johnson flinging books over the fence. I remember you being unhappy with The Wizards Heart and I’m reading about your struggle with The Guild Conspiracy and I’m happy to see you push through to those little golden moments of happiness… but I don’t think it’s the only way. You can push your boundaries and grow as an author by editing, editing, rescripting, and editing more… or you can do it by writing more books. The first way I get to read some interesting introspections (which admittedly I love) and a few super-polished books. I’ll sort of feel that I was with you while you overcame your terror and came out stronger, but the feeling will be sort of vague. The second way, the way I got myself up on the wall, I’ll get to read story after story after story and grow with you.

    The more you ultimately produce, the more your fans get to adventure with you. We’ll all walk together through many more worlds, many more stories. Best of all, we’ll get to see the secret bonus character in each of those stories overcome her obstacles and grow stronger, defeating the villain that makes each of those worlds a little fuzzier, a little more disjointed than they might be. Each story will get better and better and better and we’ll get to see them all.

    Or something. What do I know? I’m not a writer and my accuracy is terrible.

    • letting go of perfection is something i’ve always struggled with. i compete with myself, and if i’m not putting out my absolute best work, then i feel like i’m cheating myself. so it’s really hard for me to let go and just write, just let the stories out and move on, one after the other. i wish i could. i really do. because i have way too many ideas and not enough time to write them.

      my hope is that someday, i’ll come to a point where my writing quality is good enough on the first go. where i don’t have to edit three times to get something to a point where i can be proud of it.

      and maybe it’s just that this book is particularly vexing for me, being a second in a series, my second contracted novel with a major publisher, and it’s more of me feeling a lot of pressure to create something of a specific subjective quality because i want the book to do well on the market, rather than any objective measure of quality.

      i don’t know either. i just want to be good enough, i think. and i just don’t feel good enough yet.

      • First off, let me start the response with this. You are good enough.

        For values of “good enough” that include “good storyteller”, “entertaining writer”, “commercially valuable author”, and many many other things.

        Even now, as you are, with the work you are capable of producing at this point, and the work you are going to create if you stick to some modest portion of your current trajectory, that’s enough to make other people happy, make a contribution to the sum of human narrative, and probably manage to feed your kids.

        There are, however, many values of “good enough” you aren’t meeting. There are values you will never meet, no matter what. Life is like that. In all likelihood, neither you nor I will ever fire lightning bolts from our eyes or fly on winged sandals like Hermes. Life is hard.

        Short too. I’ll come back to that point, as you also brought it up in a roundabout fashion and it’s an important one.

        But back to the first subject. I don’t know if you are “good enough” for values like “makes myself happy” or “produces work I am proud of”. Only you can tell that. Maybe. Perhaps you don’t even know. Perhaps it’s so vague that you can’t really measure it. I’ve seen people be proud of some pretty abysmal stuff, and disappointed in outright masterworks. The concern I have here is that you outright said in your original post that you are seeking a “better” that is “indefinite” and “unobtainable”.

        Those are fightin’ words. As in, fight for the rest of your life until your punches shatter your bones down to the elbow and you’re still ineffectually flailing your useless meatsticks at an invulnerable ghost.

        To me, that sounds like a dangerous idea. Maybe it’ll create the greatest YA steampunk novel your publisher has ever purchased. Royalties and new cars and ThinkGeek gift certificates will rain from the sky like dragonfire. Maybe it’ll create something you are so proud of you’ll have some sort or authorial prose-gasm and begin emitting a neverending stream of peak Hemingway for the rest of your life. Maybe not. Maybe it’ll polish the novel to be as good as it possibly could be, maybe you’ll become a better author through it, and maybe you’ll only miss producing half of another work you could have written to do the same thing while you are agonizing over it.

        Maybe you’ll miss making that whole work. Or two. Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know.

        My point isn’t to be mean or doubt that you’re doing the right thing, especially since I’m responding on a public post that lots of other people surely will read, have surely read, even if they didn’t deign to respond with their thoughts. The point is that your thoughts inspired me to be the Devil’s Advocate for a bit.

        Which brings me back to the point about life being short.

        You are young and talented, bright and energetic, full of life and potential. I know that, I’ve met you both in and out of the story world. Those are awesome things you are full of, but you won’t have them forever.

        You are going to get old. Your characters will get old with you. Maybe you’ll be one of those people who can write young characters from memory, but those people are rare. Even among great authors. Most never do it as well as when they are young.

        I ought to know, I read more young adult stuff than the sum total of 100 idealized junior highs in a hypothetical world where schools still teach kids to read. I don’t care if people judge me for it, if I wanted dark complicated stuff with a crappy ending I’d just deal with real life.

        There are stories you can only tell now. They will be different stories later. They may still be good. Maybe even better. But they will be different. I guess that isn’t an easy way to make you feel better, and I suppose it’s mean if you aren’t the type to react well to pressure. I don’t really know that about you and have a terrible habit of putting too many expectations on people, but the world is begging you to tell those stories now. I think it’s why they are in you…. why you know they are there.

        Worse yet, one day you will die. You only have a limited time to tell your stories. Only a limited time to write and edit and strive for perfection. Only a limited number of tries. Maybe a lot, I hope a suspiciously unrealistic lot, but still limited. Perhaps you will one day, as Ben Franklin believed, return to amend your own work in a new and improved edition… but those will be published in a library I hope my children and grandchildren won’t visit for a very long time.

        I don’t know, maybe I’m just jealous of your editor getting to hear the song of your proverbial pen while the rest of us plebeians are locked out of the concert hall. Maybe that’s the real problem. I get to hear my friends in bands back in the early days, whether they are doing things they are proud of or not. I have their first, crappy CDs crammed with so-so work. We laugh about it when they’ve grown to modern-day mozarts… because unlike writing they HAVE to do that. There isn’t this idea that the only way to get better is to practice the same few songs in private, maybe with a professional to help craft it, then take the world by storm with one track.

        That’s a crazy idea for a musician, I think it’s crazy for an author.

        I guess that’s the rub. As a fan, and as a friend, I’m looking for your “B Tracks”. I’m looking for the stuff that even you knew wasn’t necessarily a hit, but you wrote/recorded because it was a love song you needed to share with somebody or you thought three guys in the back might be touched by it or you wanted to try a new instrument or you just couldn’t hold it in your heart any longer. I won’t believe you are happy, won’t see you as successful, won’t feel the joy I know is there until you are just singing, writing, dancing, whatever all the damned time.

        And, yes, I know there is this thing in the back of your head saying “..but muh publisher!”. Maybe it has migrated to the front by now and is struggling to fall out of your mouth. It’s silly. Do you think they don’t know that you aren’t the author you can be? Do you think they don’t know you aren’t at peak perfection? I bet they aren’t paying for peak perfection. I know they didn’t lock you in for peak perfection. I know neither you nor they will make as much money from your next book being the greatest thing ever written as they will from you becoming really and truly prolific, squeezing every single one of those stories out your mind in a good enough but constantly improving stream.

        That’s what they want. That’s what you both need to be successful with the relationship. Like I told you back when I was trying to talk you into going with them in the first place – this trilogy, this contract isn’t where the real money is for either one of you. It’s a first, second, or maybe third date. It’s the thing where you both spend a bit more than it’s worth, hoping to see if it develops into something. Yes, you should do your best to make this a good book, but it’s not going to be a great book if you don’t let the rest of the trilogy get out of you while you polish the hell out of it’s middle. You won’t have the next thing they are going to pay for ready if you haven’t, in the spare time you got by not rewriting to death, spurted out some other amazing bit to relieve the excess artistic pressure. A publisher wants BOOKS, lots of them. Good ones yes, but not just one great one that happens to be the second work by a new-ish author that nobody has heard of because no matter how good her work is she only has two published and holy crap there are a lot of books in the world.

        Long, long, too long story can’t be short… but you are good enough, Brooke. Book #2, basically the first one you’ve written for a publisher despite being the second in a series, is going to be fine. #3 will be fine. Your stories about wizards and your stories about dogs and your stories about moth people with magic sausages and whatever else will be fine, because you ARE good enough. You make yourself good enough by striving and caring and PRACTICING. Your stories are good enough.

        Let them out, Brooke.

        • you certainly don’t pull any punches, do you, Gabe? :P

          it all comes back to Why do I try so hard? and the answer is still that i don’t really know. i think the little epiphanies along the way are what make all the effort feel worth it, because i have to justify it somehow, right?

          i’m still learning my craft, still trying to find my voice, still learning my process and what works best for me for each book. maybe i’ll develop past this weird hurdle and become more prolific. maybe i’ll be one of those godforsaken writers who takes five years to write a book. i don’t know.

          all i can do now is try. keep trying. keep writing. and hope i figure it out.

  2. I missed this when it first came out (I was probably in the throes of my own writerly angst). This is a great piece, and resonates with me a lot.

    One of the really beautiful and tragic things about writing, I think, is that those ineffable moments of “yes” that thrill us as writers may not be what thrill readers — or they may end up on the cutting room floor when it comes time to edit. The journey we begin may not be the one we finish. That’s such a struggle, and often so painful, but I think it’s reflective of life in that way.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I just try to remember that all the struggle and pain happens because these things are important to me. I’m not writing a throwaway story I don’t give a shit about. If I was, none of this would be happening. It hurts because it matters.


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