February 1st, 2011 / 12:42 pm
Craft Notes

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

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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21 Comments

  1. alanrossi

      almost never do i discuss something being worked on. very rarely something finished or published. i feel i have nothing to add beyond what’s written down there in the story. every other word around it is just a muckery of some hopefully better composed thing.

      i like your workshop experience. for me, that’s what taught me to abandon.

      nice post.

  2. Gordon

      The cycle between novel releases can be so long, which is mostly why I’m interested in what they’re working on. It might be three years before it sees a shelf, so I often want to know what kind of place the author’s at right now, not just where they were three years ago when they wrote the book they’re promoting. But as a writer, it’s hard not to talk about in-progress stuff, because it’s always what I’m most excited about.

  3. Joe

      Ive found that when I talk about work in progress it seems like something happens and the magic that infected me to write in the first place gets lost. Its almost as if because I talked about it the creative Gods punish me for spilling the beans too early. My response now is always “im working a few plot issues out and will let you read it when its done”. This always seems to satisfy the curious and to protect the precious ideas that are so quick to quit.

  4. mdbell79

      One of my favorite parts about being 14 months into a novel, and doing almost no other fiction-writing? Having this work all to myself, all the time. I’ve got months and months of work that I’ve slaved over that almost no one has seen (and a lot that no one has), and very few people will for quite some time still. To have this thing that’s all mine at the same time I’m putting out a finished book, which now belongs to anyone who wants it, has been an incredible joy and a challenge and generally feels great. It’s made me a more self-reliant writer, among other things.

  5. Michael Copperman

      If you’re at the same point I’m at now– 5 years beyond an MFA, having had to abandon and expel the influence of other people’s ideas and opinions about what my work should be and how it should be structured and what made it good or bad– then perhaps the conclusion I came to, which has been generative for me, will help: until you’re dealing directly with an editor who wants to publish your work, whether at a fine magazine like Tin House or an actual editor at a publishing house, you don’t allow other opinions to inform the work or your process EXCEPT for one or two trusted readers, whose feedback you respond to with skepticism but openness (rarely is the change or solution a reader suggests the right move, but often they are identifying something that may be off and need work).

  6. Kyle Minor

      For me, the post-MFA years have been largely about reapproaching the things I liked before I started studying. Now I have better tools with which to understand how they work and why. But the process of acquiring those tools required spending a lot of time immersed in varieties of writing that I ultimately want to reject for various reasons, usually a general lack of ambition, or a smallness, or a lack of wow.

      It is easy to get sucked into cycles of approval-seeking, but the truth is that you can’t do anything to ensure the approval of those from whom you most want it, whether it is parents or teachers or classmates or other writers. All you can do is try to make the kind of thing you wish you could read, and hope that some readers come along with you for the ride. I wish I had learned this lesson earlier than I did.

  7. thelinebreak

      If you talk about what you are writing about, you end up telling the story, which is like writing the story. Except when you’re done telling the story, the story is done, and the creative energies to write the story have been usurped by telling the story aloud. Keep the story hush until it’s nearly done and you need to share it with someone.

  8. Michael Copperman

      Kyle, just– yes. I did learn to read like a writer in the MFA, and I did learn to think critically about craft, both in what I read and in my own work; I think I also had some problems, at least initially, letting my own instincts, aesthetic, voice, and sense of dramatic timing be natural again, so that I could be ambitious on my own terms, seeking my own art. As you say quite eloquently, “All you can do is try to make the kind of thing you wish you could read,” and while that is a hard lesson to learn, I couldn’t agree more.

      I don’t get the sense Amy is saying anything different than that, either– just that she finds it hard to realize such an ideal in the relative world, where we hear the opinions of our peers, critics, editors, friends, the clamor of the entire interweb demanding something that seems not to be us because clearly we’re not on the NY’ers twenty-under, the agents are not hammering at the door, the door is to a tiny, dim, run-down apartment in some city somewhere where we steal the time to write while the world goes on without us, and how do we justify those choices– how do we persist? I know my own answer (I need to; I must, regardless of the wisdom of such a life), but it’s not been an easy one to accept or to live by, you know?

  9. Justin Taylor

      I think you’re onto something with this. I find the same thing happens with scribbled-down ideas and shorthand notes. What it comes down to is, you only get one shot at a first draft, and if you write yourself a note to look at later then later that’s what you’ve got–a note. It must be similar with sitting at your desk trying to remember what you said about the writing before you wrote it. When I was working full-time on The Gospel of Anarchy I used to find it excruciating to be out somewhere and have some relevant idea for a character or a scene and not be able to add it to the manuscript right away. I would spin out whole sentences and paragraphs in my head, then let them go. That was really hard. But the lesson I learned was that the important, useful stuff came back when I was working, and the rest stayed gone. Whether it re-occurred to me or not became the first test of whether the idea was worth exploring. The few times I broke my rule and made notes, I found myself unable to make anything out of them. I’ve got a a handful of these little dead ends and false starts in my files–character sketches, half-scenes, a couple alternate endings, etc.

  10. News regarding all things literary, tweeted « Category Thirteen

      […] Can We Not Talk About What We’re Working On Again, Please? -http://htmlgiant.com/?p=56719 […]

  11. Ken Baumann

      It’s a mistake for a sculptor or a painter to speak or write very often about his job. It releases tension needed for his work. -Henry Moore

      Also: notes kill the same way for me.

  12. Ken Baumann

      Yes. Thanks for vocalizing this. I find the most (and only?) rewarding strategy for talking about what you’re working on/in/through is to set up peer pressure to finish. That’s it.

  13. Amy McDaniel

      Agreed. That reminds me of something I didn’t get to in this post: an ideal MFA program, in my mind, would consist entirely of literature seminars (aimed of course toward reading as a writer) and deadlines.

  14. Jkreid2000

      I agree. When you voice something before it’s done, it gets away from you. You have to let it live only in the self before it’s ready to release to other. The imagination, seems to me, silent. Once the language of imagination gets translated into one’s native tongue, it ceases to be what it was. If we are lucky as writers we can translate it, but luck is only half of it. Practice and regular writing makes it come. Even if it doesn’t come within that particular piece. Some texts are never finished. Some just flow. My thesis advisor said that for every piece you work and work and work over, it pays off twofold in the one that just comes. I have poems that I still feel a great deal of energy toward, and yet, I still can’t seem to get them right, but I keep trying. And then sometimes something new comes, and it is magical.

      I long to be one of those writers that has a regular practice. But I also know that processes are different. Sometimes there are spurts. Sometimes there are long dry spells. I try not to be so hard on myself about those, knowing that when I write, it will be meaningful, if to no one else, at least me. And no matter what one’s practice, there’s going to be complete crap, but at least I am generating.

      The more you write, certainly, the better you get. But it’s important not to measure yourself against others so much. Trust those few who can give you the editorial eye you need. And trust yourself. Above all, that is the most important.

  15. Jkreid2000

      I agree. When you voice something before it’s done, it gets away from you. You have to let it live only in the self before it’s ready to release to other. The imagination, seems to me, silent. Once the language of imagination gets translated into one’s native tongue, it ceases to be what it was. If we are lucky as writers we can translate it, but luck is only half of it. Practice and regular writing makes it come. Even if it doesn’t come within that particular piece. Some texts are never finished. Some just flow. My thesis advisor said that for every piece you work and work and work over, it pays off twofold in the one that just comes. I have poems that I still feel a great deal of energy toward, and yet, I still can’t seem to get them right, but I keep trying. And then sometimes something new comes, and it is magical.

      I long to be one of those writers that has a regular practice. But I also know that processes are different. Sometimes there are spurts. Sometimes there are long dry spells. I try not to be so hard on myself about those, knowing that when I write, it will be meaningful, if to no one else, at least me. And no matter what one’s practice, there’s going to be complete crap, but at least I am generating.

      The more you write, certainly, the better you get. But it’s important not to measure yourself against others so much. Trust those few who can give you the editorial eye you need. And trust yourself. Above all, that is the most important.

  16. MFBomb

      One great benefit of MFA programs is that they teach the ambitious writer how he doesn’t want to write.

  17. Justin Taylor

      That’s a great idea. Or, it could involve a workshop whose scope was specifically limited to throwaway pieces, in order to develop technique/form/skill with the explicit understanding that those things will be applied to the “real work” later, on one’s own time. Like doing figure studies or perspective exercises in a drawing class, or like playing scales and standards in music.

  18. NLY

      I think talking about your work in public is like talking about the phases of your pregnancy in public. “oh, it’s coming along!” is fine but “right now my fetus has developed toenails and the ability to process waste inside of me” strikes me as no.

  19. Amy McDaniel

      I’m really glad to know that other people feel this way, too. I appreciate what everyone has said about self-reliance and trusting yourself. I think my problem has been that I know in my head that my vision is what counts, and so what I discuss with others shouldn’t affect that, but then weirdly it does in ways that I can’t seem to control. I think it really has to do this what several people have said about the story, or the idea, getting away.

      I’m pretty sure it’s bad for me to say even, I’m working on a novel, or, I’m working on finishing my poetry manuscript. I have not actually found that I’ve felt “peer pressure to finish” as Ken mentioned. I’m too good at explaining to my peers why something isn’t working out, whereas I don’t think the same kinds of excuses would fly if I could only repeat them in my own head.

  20. MFBomb

      To me, your post indicates a major flaw in most MFA programs: little to no cultivation of a young writer’s “vision.” Stories are often “workshopped” in a vacuum. There are many good teachers in MFA programs. Many of these teachers write solid in-text comments, put effort into their comments, and run their workshops effectively, but often, that’s it; this is supposedly enough to make an MFA teacher great. The rest is up to the writer. But I disagree: a great teacher should balance craft with inspiration. A great teacher should be able to see your vision on the page.

  21. MFBomb

      To me, your post indicates a major flaw in most MFA programs: little to no cultivation of a young writer’s “vision.” Stories are often “workshopped” in a vacuum. There are many good teachers in MFA programs. Many of these teachers write solid in-text comments, put effort into their comments, and run their workshops effectively, but often, that’s it; this is supposedly enough to make an MFA teacher great. The rest is up to the writer. But I disagree: a great teacher should balance craft with inspiration. A great teacher should be able to see your vision on the page.