Monday, October 21, 2013

Writing Problems: #1 and #2

I've got two big writing projects at the moment. One is my novel, which, despite my poor health lately (stupid mono!) I've managed to make some terrific progress on. Unfortunately, I've felt this overwhelming feeling of dread whenever I think about the other project - my World War II book on the POW camps of Nebraska. It's a BIG project and one I'm not quite sure I can pull off.

I've struggled to understand why I feel this fear in particular. Yes, it's a project I've never undertaken before, but there must be a first for everything. Yes, it's a nonfiction book which means I better get my facts right. And I also have a master's degree in history so I really better know what the heck I'm doing.
But what is it about this book that so terrifies me?

I've had to stop and examine this out of sheer necessity. When you are paralyzed on a writing project that has a deadline, you better get it figured out so you don't miss that deadline.

So here's what I came up with.

I'm struggling with 1) information overload and 2) the fear of disappointing others.

First, let's go with the information overload. When I was researching my thesis and copying file after file of documents, a museum curator told me, "The historian with the most stuff wins." Basically, I want all the files. I never know what I might need, what might be a key component of the narrative I'm trying to tell. Some of it (perhaps most of it) won't be used. But I still need all the stuff because there's that one chance that the file I didn't copy is exactly the one I need.

So now I'm faced with a plethora of documents and a word count that I have to meet. And here's the problem: I have enough material for twice or perhaps even three times the word limit my publisher has given me.

Therein is Problem #1: figuring out what information to include, what to condense, what to delete altogether, and how to organize it all. It's incredibly challenging. Getting over this hurdle isn't easy, and I've had to tell myself to just get it all down now, then go back and edit later which is exactly the same way I approach my fiction writing. I'm slowly, slowly getting through it.

Which brings us to Problem #2: the fear of disappointing others.

Let me explain.

Since I started writing way back in the sixth grade, I have made no secret of it. Everyone, from friends to family to teachers to people in the small town where I grew up, knew I was a writer. They have supported me through it all. I don't have any stories about "discouragers." No one ever told me to put this foolish writing dream behind me and get a "real" job. My parents never tried to steer me in a different direction. My husband hasn't rolled his eyes at my writing dream then handed me a basket of laundry to fold. Everyone has always encouraged me and supported me in my writing, and for that, I know I am incredibly, unbelievably blessed.

But all that support and encouragement has had a very weird effect in making me worry that my first published book will disappoint all of those people who've been there for me, that it won't be good enough, that it won't live up to their expectations.

And everyone knows about that book contract because I told them (and yes, even announced it on my blog). Why wouldn't I? I am excited as heck about it and wanted to share my good news. The response was incredible - more support, more encouragement. And no, I am not complaining. At all.

But because I'm a writer who thinks too much to the point of paralyzing myself from actually getting any writing done, this has been quite a big hurdle for me to overcome.

I don't have the motivation of, 'I'm going to write this stellar book and I'll show them that they were wrong about me!' Instead, I have this running through my head: 'They encouraged and supported me and this awful book will show them they were wrong to do so. I am a fraud and a failure.'

Heavy stuff.

How, I ask, does a person overcome those feelings?

By doing precisely what I'm doing: writing about it. That's how I process the world and understand it, through the written word. I can do no less on this particular subject.

I don't have it figured out yet. I still have that little troll sitting on my shoulder and telling me I'm going to take a giant nosedive into the dirt on this book and prove to the world that for all my bravado, I'm a big, fat failure. I hate that little troll. If I could kick him off the roof, I would, but he has sort of taken permanent residence here (I spotted his unpacked suitcase the other day). I'm trying to shut him up as much as possible and just do the work, but it isn't easy.

So that's where I'm at.

What's remarkable about all of this is that I know I'll get through it. I know I'll finish the book and that while it will certainly not be a New York Times bestseller, it will be a good book because I will do my best to make it so. That is a comfort.

But it's when those moments of panic descend and the troll starts yammering that I tend to wonder why in the world I wanted to do this project in the first place.

The obvious answer is because I love to write and I love history. I'm combining both of those passions with this project. But those reasons are getting lost in all of this ridiculous self-doubt.

One day at a time. One word at a time, one paragraph, one page.

Do the work.


  1. Isn't it terrible how we can paralyze ourselves with our thoughts? I'm pretty good at it myself! But you sound like you're on the right track. Knowing what the problem is, is the first line of attack! Help that troll to pack his bags and launch in there! You know you can do it. :)

    1. I truly think we are our own worst enemies a lot of the time. I was able to get some work done on it Sunday night, so that was a huge relief!

  2. I've been pretty paralyzed with writing lately. Doing anything else to avoid it, because I'm stuck and don't know how to get out of it. I like your advice one word, sentence, paragraph at a time. Good luck.

    1. I've been there (stuck) and likely will again. Hope you get "unstuck" very soon!

  3. Melissa-you blog looks great! I absolutely adore it!

    As far as writing goes, once there are other people involved who we must answer too, I think the self doubt and fear kick into overdrive. While too much is crippling, and that's not good-I think it also shows that you care about what you write, and that you aren't willing to settle for writing that isn't your best. I also like your advice. One day, one word, one paragraph, one page- at a time. I believe in you, my sweet friend:)

  4. You know I have the same two problems. For my thesis, I probably only used half of what I gathered. I also have the fear of disappointing people. But not necessarily disappointing those around me but rather of the people I'm writing about or their families or even those who knew them or..... Fundamentally, it comes down to me over-thinking and over-analyzing every little thing. However, I would rather do that than be one who under-thinks and under-analyze. You'll get there my friend!

    1. I agree with you, Jess. I would rather be overly-cautious than apathetic. I want to get the historical record right. That's really the most important thing.


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