I’m currently working on a book project, which explains why I found myself binge-watching videos on Instagram the other day.
In my senseless searching, I stumbled across a video of an author speaking to a group of writers, where she admits, to her own chagrin, that she just spent the day editing her introduction for the tenth time instead of writing.
She said, “I spent three hours moving words around on a page, thinking I was writing. But I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t adding a word to my word count. I was hiding.”
The audience applauded.
This both inspired and troubled me. It inspired me because I had literally just done this that day: editing and re-editing the introduction to a new book I’m writing with a friend. And I wondered now if I had just wasted my time.
And it troubled me because it seems shortsighted. Part of writing is not writing. Of course, you can’t complete a book if you never get past a few hundred words on a page. But at the same time, so much of writing is not just creation. It’s curation. All good writing is rewriting, they say.
Type. Delete. Type. This is what we writers do. And it cannot be ignored, avoided, or accelerated. You put the words on the page, rearrange them, remove some of them, add more words, and at some point get something that looks complete.
It’s never really finished, of course. That’s the beauty and tragedy of it all. You can always tinker and play with it, and many do just that.
F. Scott Fitzgerald always carried around a copy of The Great Gatsby with him wherever he went, because he was never fully satisfied with it, making constant notes and corrections to it until the end of his life.
Fitzgerald was continually chasing the ideal of his art and never finding it. Maybe, in a way, we all are.
So let’s talk about that.
In addition to this blog post, I also recorded a podcast to expand on the idea of what writers really do. You can listen to it here.
Why Grady Tripp couldn’t stop writing (or when writing isn’t writing)
Recently, I watched a movie about writers called Wonder Boys. In it, the main character Grady Tripp’s first novel was a big hit, and now he is struggling to finish his next book. Years past deadline, he is constantly under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and everyone thinks he’s blocked.
Turns out, Grady is not blocked at all. He’s written well over 2,000 pages, pages about horse genealogies and dental records and who knows what else. When a student calls him out for not making any choices, he gets defensive.
But then (spoiler alert) in an interesting turn of events, he loses the manuscript. It flies out the window and goes straight into the river. Afterward, someone asks what the book was about, and Grady says, “I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know what the story was about, then why were you writing it?”
“Because,” he admits, “I couldn’t stop.”
Writing is not just about meeting a word count. It is about saying something. Just because you’re typing doesn’t mean you’re communicating. And just because you’re deleting doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.
Why everything must die before it can be reborn
When you feel stuck, the worst thing you can do is stop. The second worst thing you can do is keep going in the wrong direction. This is true in writing, and this is true in life. Editing is as much a part of the writing process as composition.
Making something is not just about adding a new piece to the larger whole. Sometimes, it’s about taking something away. And we’re not just talking about writing anymore, are we?
Lately, I’ve been reconsidering some of my most deeply-held beliefs. As one friend put it, “I’m taking some dusty ideas off the shelf, re-examining them, and deciding if I want to put them back on the shelf.”
For a while, I felt bad about this until a psychotherapist/priest friend of mine explained that all healthy spiritual and emotional journeys follow a simple process of deconstruction and reconstruction. Here’s he describes it:
- Thesis: First you believe something.
- Antithesis: Then you believe the opposite of that something.
- Synthesis: Then you find a way to reconcile the something with its seeming contradiction.
It is in a paradox that truth is found and often deepened. We sometimes have to destroy what we’ve built to create something better.
Everything is always ending, and everything is always beginning. That was made clear to me the other weekend when I had a friend die, another friend announced he was getting divorced, and another friend decided to leave his job and strike out on his own. All in a weekend.
Endings and beginnings. That’s life. And that’s writing.
The trick, it seems, is not to keep doing what you’re doing. It’s to edit. To ask why you’re doing it in the first place. I’m currently doing this with my life and my business, and my writing—and it’s scary as hell. But it also feels right. Because I know some things can’t be born until other things die.
Creation is always an act of resurrection.
How’s the writing going?
So when someone asks you, “How’s the writing going?” and you’ve deleted more words than you’ve typed today, don’t feel bad.
Sometimes, finishing is overrated (don’t tell my friend Jon I said that).
When you find yourself working on that book and the word count doesn’t measure up to the goal, understand you are probably more on track than you realize. You are doing the work. Type. Delete. Type. Remember?
Don’t just measure what you’ve done but also what you’re doing. They both matter. The secret to doing good work is not just about crossing finish lines. It’s about running good races.
Some races we finish, and some we only begin. But most of us got into this work not to amass a bunch of medals but for the joy of the run. Almost every great writer dies with an incomplete manuscript, and maybe this is as it should be. They died doing what they loved — not finishing, but creating.
Plus, you never know what might happen to those abandoned and incomplete works. I always loved that Tolkien story “Leaf By Niggle” in which an artist spends his entire life working on a single painting of a tree and never finishes it.
Then in the afterlife, he discovers not only the tree but a whole forest and a garden for him to tend. What he began in one life, he was able to complete in another. And what he could only imagine in one life became a reality in another.
Maybe that’s how it works. We chase the ideal, and all our vain efforts to make something measure up are just that — vain. Vain but beautiful and even more important: worthwhile.
What better way to spend a life than in pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful? That’s how I’m trying to spend mine, anyway.
Oh, and those Fitzgerald edits I mentioned, the mere tinkerings of an obsessive perfectionist? Well, after the author’s death, that old, marked-up copy of Gatsby was discovered. And the edits he made ended up in future versions of the book. So you just never know what comes from a work you start but never quite finish.