Can We Not Talk About What We’re Working On Again, Please?

Posted by @ 12:42 pm on February 1st, 2011

The pendulum has swung, as pendulums are so woefully apt to do. When I was small, and first starting reading about what writers said about writing, they all seemed to say that it was better not to discuss a work in progress. At the time, this seemed a kind of magic trick, a superstition of some kind. But I’d be damned if I didn’t take their word for gospel, even though I didn’t understand it any better than I understood the actual Gospels (I heard “Jesus is everywhere” and imagined a thousand teeny tiny invisible Bethlehem babies lounging around even as I bathed).

Apparently, I was damned. By the time I started writing in earnest, the whole mechanism had to do with not only discussing but sharing your work in progress. In college, this was great, because I wasn’t in any way ready to complete anything to the point that it could be published. So participating in workshops was like army boot camp. I learned lots.

In MFA school, I still learned, especially in literature seminars, but I certainly didn’t complete anything publishable. But this time, I was probably ready to, but was hampered by the workshop process. There were three reasons for this, I think. 1, in no workshop that I took did anyone say that a piece should just be abandoned. ¬†All criticism was constructive, which was the point, but in reality some work needs to be torn down so that something better can be built in its place. I’m very impressionable, so after hearing my work discussed for 20 or so minutes, I became convinced it was worth my continued attention even if it really wasn’t. But I ran into trouble with the continued attention because 2, my classmates’ and professor’s opinions about any one piece, even a 3-pager, were so conflicted, and the problems they unearthed so convoluted, that I was totally lost when faced with revision. To make matters worse, 3, my professors and classmates (not to mention lots of other people in my life–they all agreed) also told me what book they thought I should write, and how I should go about it. Almost five years later, I have only just really decided that they were wrong, and that the book they had in mind is not the one I should write, at least not right now. Like I said, I’m very impressionable. I have confidence in my own work, sure, but there is something powerful about everyone you know saying they want to read the same as-yet-unwritten book by you.¬†Powerful and dangerous.

Things have gotten better since grad school. There is no longer a structure for me share work in progress, so I find myself writing and revising by my own lights (sometimes with the help of an editor, as in the case of the essay I published in Tin House, but a single editor who wants to put out a great publication is totally different than 15 editors in workshop who actually have no stake at all in what you write), and the results are often publishable. But I have yet to complete a book manuscript. Every time I start one, I make what I am beginning to think really is a fatal mistake: I talk about it.

Like I said, the pendulum seems to have shifted. Whereas there used to seem to be a certain mystique in not talking about work in progress, I think the opposite is now true. “Real” writers don’t go in for that kind of superstition, right? This is perhaps my own insecurity. When someone asks me, “What are you working on?” all I hear is, “Are you a real writer?” If I don’t tell them what I’m working on, I worry, they will think I’m not a real writer either because a) I’m not currently writing and real writers write all the time or b) I’m coyly/superstitiously/affectedly “protecting” what I’m working on by not discussing it. So I always dish. Like I said, horribly impressionable. And apparently pretty insecure, as I’m pretty certain most of the time that my writer friends think I’m a fraud.

Today, Sara Faye Lieber shared a link on her Facebook page to an article by David Foster Wallace. She introduces the link with the line “why i don’t want to talk about the book i’m working on.” I read the article, and while Wallace isn’t addressing this exact question, it definitely clarified some things for me. He writes, “writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel.”

I would add writing nonfiction and poetry to the same. But not conversation! In conversation, I have very different goals than I do when writing. Talking about having written something is one thing, though I’m not too into that either. But for me, talking about a work in progress infects the work in question. I start thinking about audience in a way that takes me away from my own vision and my own standards. Somehow I think being a southern woman is mixed up into this. Something about a more radical difference in my own perceptions of my public and private self–not in a dishonest way, just in a southern way of wanting to get along and make a connection without revealing very much. The paradox of being not at all reserved but being very private. This works in conversation, but it fails on the page.

Not everyone faces this struggle, and for them it is nothing to talk about work in progress. But I don’t think it’s because they are real writers and I’m not. At least I hope not! I would love to hear other people’s thoughts about this. I’m still trying to understand it myself.

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