“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.