George R. R. Martin once divided writers into two camps: architects, those who obsessively plan everything in detail, and gardeners, those who plant seeds in nourishing soil and hope for the best.
I’m one of those writerly gardeners. Coincidentally, I’ve also begun growing potted plants on the balcony outside my apartment. My aloe is getting smothered by some morning stars, but otherwise everything’s doing well. The copious rain we’ve gotten lately in Tampa means I don’t have to worry about watering them every day.
I outline, sure. I prefer prose synopses when I’m outlining, telling the story in present tense, to find the bare bones. But beyond a point, writing is letting a story grow in a nourishing environment. I take a seed or sprout, plant it in potting soil, keep it watered, and hope for the best. The drawback is that there’s no guarantee your plant will grow the way you anticipated, or even if it will thrive at all.
For much of this year, I had the worst writer’s block I can remember. It began in late January, when I had to prioritize moving my stuff into a new apartment. Shortly after the move in February, with half of my things yet to be put away, I broke my arm.
I couldn’t write for several months. At first I was too doped up on Percocet to stay awake, but after the pain went away my arm was too weak and fragile to type at all. Through weeks of physical therapy, I brought strength and range of motion back to my arm, and it became bearable to type again.
Around this time, a good friend offered to read what was then-titled The Red Flood, a YA novel I had sent to agents. Their responses were tepid, so I was eager to get more critical feedback. There were issues with character motivation, with maintaining narrative drive, and there was a general lack of necessary polish for a finished manuscript. Immediately following this conversation, I knew how to fix the book. I could rewrite parts of the first act, clarifying character motivations, and re-cut my chapters for better pacing and to create cliffhangers. I knew exactly what needed to be done.
I had no idea if I could pull it off.
I struggled to revise a chapter a week at first. I would fix a chapter one night, then spent three or four nights worrying if I had done it the right way, and a fifth night fixing other problems. It took a month and a half, starting from the beginning of June, to get through the one-third of the book.
Little by little, I fixed each issue as I came across it, and when it came time to polish the first portion of the book, I realized how much it was improving. I may not have fixed the book in the way I anticipated, and I had to exercise my brain in ways that made me mentally sore, but still. Things were getting fixed. If I could keep it up, the book would be much better for it.
My schedule kept slipping. I thought it would take two months, then three. I finally gave myself a hard deadline of Labor Day weekend for all of my changes. I picked up my pace, and revisions got easier with a better understanding of how things needed to be done.
Last Saturday, I powered through the last set of edits to Red Flood. (I removed the article after noticing how few YA titles actually have “the” in the title.) I still have a secondary polish and a final glance-over to do this week, but in every other way the novel is finally fixed. In a week or two, it’ll be back in the world, looking for a home, but with a toned body that rivals what happened to Chris Pratt this year.
I had lost faith.
Not faith in some divine being, but in myself, my abilities. I’ve seen so many of my peers have great success, while I’ve been floundering in the pool of slush for so long. I knew good writing when I saw it, but I thought I would never produce it. Meeting so many talented people two years ago at Viable Paradise was a curse in one awful way: I discovered how inadequate I still was.
Writing takes faith. So does gardening. Is that seed you bought from a packet going to sprout? Are you sure you’re not over-watering that perennial? Is there the right amount of shade? Is a bad afternoon storm going to blow your pots onto the sidewalk below?
People with far more talent than me have fared far worse than me this year. Hearing about Robin Williams broke my heart. For people with mental illness, you can’t just say “snap out of it!” and shake the motivation back into them.
I don’t know if I’m clinically depressed, but I do know that I’m not neurotypical. I had a lot of trouble with seasonal affective disorder when I lived in colder climes. A few years ago, I started seeing a therapist when I began having panic attacks at work. There are days when the best I can do is put on clothes and sit in my cubicle. And though I haven’t done this in a decade, I have seriously contemplated suicide in the past. It’s not that I lost my faith in myself. My faith evaporated, then condensed again only after a few months. If that happens, all you can do is keep showing up and hope for the best.
I’ve almost quit writing, my life’s passion, too many times to count. Because it got “too hard,” because I was jealous of another’s success, because everything else in my life was such utter shit that it didn’t seem worth the bother.
Plants, I’ve discovered, are hardy creatures. I nearly killed one of them when I kept it indoors too long, too far away from the sunlight it needed. It was wilted and brown when I moved it out to the balcony. Within a week it was much better, and now it needs a bigger pot.
I’ve abandoned novel drafts 20,000 words in when life got in the way, only to pick it up a year later and finish it piecemeal. Just this weekend I resubmitted five stories, all of which had bounced back from markets, hoping that this time they’ll take root somewhere.
Sometimes, if you don’t have faith, you have to fake it until it comes back. Right now, that’s the best I can do.