I was an illustration major once. It didn’t last long.
My old AP art teacher once instructed my friend BeckyAnn to smear a charcoal still life she’d been working on forever and start over on the SAME PAGE! I don’t care that her piece turned out amazing, with all those haunting hints of oozing orange slices emerging in various black-and-white layers. Who cares if she won an award for it in some high school exhibition in Park City, I think, if I remember right. I was still not about to SMEAR my picture and start over. I gripped my charcoal tighter and glowered at my teacher who, it seems, knew how to give me only one instruction: “Loosen up.”
The thing is, I can’t. I have the same problem with toothbrushes—my gums are receding, I brush so hard.
I think I might have the same problem with writing. Writing exercises seem like such a waste when I’d rather just be writing the book. From blank page to finished product, from point A to point Z, with no messy drafts in between—this is my tidy writing fantasy.
I’ve never liked messes. My dad laughed at how I stifled sneezes even as a baby because I was probably afraid of blowing snot all over myself. And I still wash my hands about five times after pulling the defrosted hamburger out of the microwave and dumping it in the frying pan.
That’s why I pulled out my notes today from writer Susan Taylor Brown’s lecture “Write Where It Hurts.” To me, writing first drafts that stink like hot garbage hurts. It’s embarrassing. It seems so inefficient. And yet, people keep telling me there’s no other way to get at the heart of my stories; I have to wade around in the messy unknown to discover what’s hiding. Trying to be tidy results in unrealistic, stiff storytelling, never uncovering what the real story should have been.
Here’s what Ms. Brown had to say about my phobias: “Your writing can come across as unrealistic because you are afraid to write with the authenticity that will force you, and the reader, to feel. If you feel numb when you write, how do you think your readers are going to feel when they read?”
The cure for numb writing? Loosen up. “Lose control. Take the energy you would spend trying to control your work and put it into your work.”
Okay, I can do that—if I stay up till two in the morning watching Monty Python clips on YouTube before settling down to write. I’m not sure how else to put my dominant inner editor to sleep.