(or How Not to Let a Little Rough Going Get You Down)
Here in Central Oregon, there are rough-legged hawks, northern rough-winged swallows, signs that warn Rough Road, west winds that rough you up, rough ways to make a living.
Here and everywhere you can find rough language, rough‑and-ready methods of doing things, rough days, rough nights, rough edges, and rough ground.
(I’m not even going to get into rough news, the roughing up of Senate rules, rough handling of the Constitution. But those are at the top of my “rough” list.)
Working on a novel now, going through yet another draft, I come to one or more stretches of literary rough road every day: a sentence that won’t fit, a character who wants to go his own way with dialogue or action, a scene that’s out of sequence, a setting that I can’t “see,” a word that just won’t come out of my gray matter.
When I hit these rough spots, I do one of three things: (1) keep plugging, (2) take a break, or (3) walk away for good.
I’ve tried them all. They all have their merits. They all have their supporters, too, people who swear by them. Here are a few virtues of each alternative, described in turn.
Just power through. Don’t give in to online shopping. Now’s not the time to call your sister. If you haven’t made your quota of words or sentences or paragraphs for the day, keep plugging. You’ll get there. You may write total crap, but at least you’ll have a placeholder, words that can be switched out later. This is the Jack London School of Writing Advice, in which you don’t wait for inspiration to come to you but rather “go after it with a club.” It worked for him. Sometimes it’s worked for me. It can work for you. If words won’t come at all, leave a space to fill, perhaps, but keep going. Don’t stop working, don’t stop writing.
Take a Break
Breathe, breathe. Strike some yoga poses. Revive your brain with a walk. John Gardner, in To Be a Novelist, suggested letting a manuscript rest if it gets surly; the answer to a literary question may come when you’re working in your wood shop or playing your guitar. Author Ellen Sussman suggests working for three-quarters of an hour, breaking for fifteen minutes to stretch, stroll, or sip hot tea, then getting back to work at the top of the next hour. The brain gets to rest in these mini-breaks and is the better for it.
Sometimes a great idea for a story is just that, a great idea for a story. No one said you have to turn every great idea you’ve ever had into a full-blown article, essay, story, or novel. Keep a file of good ideas. If the manuscript you’re writing turns out to be beyond your capability at the moment, don’t scrap it. It may be gold you can mine later. Do give yourself permission to walk away from it, though, if you’ve tried your best and it still isn’t shaping to your vision. File it in a folder marked “TBD”: you may find that you’ll return to it with greater skills later.
Rough times get easier with practice; resilience in the face of challenge is a learned skill. A road that feels rough may really be the road less traveled, in disguise.