Agony and Ecstacy (But Mostly Agony): The Writing Process

I recently watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the point of which was to (1) contextualize the upheaval that Eat, Pray, Love caused in her life and self-concept, and (2) inform readers/writers that success is as up-setting of the natural order of one’s life as failure is.   I love Gilbert for being so honest about her failures and for reminding me that returning to writing no matter what my external circumstances are is a way to experience what she calls “home.”  She says she loved writing more than she hated herself.


At this very moment, as a siren wails in the distance and the smell of last night’s dinner (curry) hangs in the air, and I couldn’t tell you where I fall on the self-hate/writing-love spectrum.  Right now, they are woven together, and I can’t tell if it’s a noose or a rope attached to a life boat.

So, writing.  I started writing seriously– with goals and publication aspirations– about two years ago.  I was 38.  The courtship was dazzling, the romance was whirlwindy.  The honeymoon was all ocean breezes and incessant sex interrupted only by room service bringing thick-cut bacon and farm-fresh eggs.

Now, we are in a marriage.  There’s morning breath.  There are dirty dishes in the sink.  Writing never sends me flowers any more.  There’s petty grievances and hardened resentments that make those early days when I thought Wow, I could seriously write a book seem like youthful folly, not unlike a choir member thinking Wow, I could be the next Mick Jagger.

The business of being intimate with writing is like being in any intimate relationship.  Sometimes you want wind the clock back to the days when what stretched before you was endless possibility as far as your eye could see– those days before you set your sights (and heart and soul) on that thing. 

Because writing is such a bitch.  Do accountants have to grapple with the existential crises? Do they stare at the cloudy heavens and ask Will I ever make it as a comptroller?

Seriously, why is writing such a damn bitch?

And why can’t I quit her? 

The other night I said to Jeff with a stone-straight face: I wish I could just quit writing.  You can, he said.  But I can’t, I cried.  I keep opening that document that has the first second third draft of my book and tinkering.  Searching for depth, the spaces to amplify and elucidate.  Then, I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and I want to stab each part of my cell that carries the desire to write because she’s done it so well and for so long.  She’s profound and moving and important– she’s a complete meal with a rich chocolate dessert.  My manuscript feels like cotton candy– no protein, no starch begging for butter, no riboflavin-rich vegetables.  It’s bubblegum pink.  It’s forgettable.

But, I’ll open that document today and I’ll cast about trying to shade the frilly parts into something darker, richer.  Something heart-healthy and high in calories.  Something with more gravitas.  I’ll aim to make her lover more complex.  I’ll develop the arc in a more compelling way.  I’ll have her eat rocky road instead of vanilla.  I’ll draft a scene with her mother that shows from whence the primal ache came.

Then, I’ll close the document and ride the bus home thinking, Why am I doing this? Why not just be a voracious and grateful reader? Why do I need to write a novel?

I’ve memorialized these thoughts thanks to the lovely, hilarious, irreverent, and always authentic Susannah from Whoa, Susannah who tagged me for a blog hop on the subject of writing.  I think it was supposed to be a light exercise, so when she reads this ponderous tome, she might unfriend me and stop following my blog.  (Bye, Susannah, I love you and we’ll always have the blog hop.)

In the meantime I’ll answer the questions that the other bloggers did and then I’ll tag some writers who may be more cheery on the subject of writing.  You know, people who take themselves WAY less seriously.

What am I working on?

Have I mentioned that I’m writing a novel?   

How does my writing/work differ from others in the same genre?

Here’s my hope: I hope my protagonist is an intelligent, ambitious, flawed woman with yearnings everyone can relate to and recognize.  I’d like her to have a stronger voice and I wish she would tell me how to fix the ending. 

Why do I write what I do?

 Honest answer? Sometimes I think I undertook the novel in order to become frustrated and have a giant excuse to walk away forever.  I’ve never taken a single creative writing class in my life.  A novel is a complex art form– why didn’t I start with short stories? Or haikus? Why did it have to be the novel? 

When I am not analyzing my subconscious need to sabotage my relationship with writing, I love writing on my blog because it’s fun, it leads to connection and community and it keeps me from losing my marbles over the damn book.

What is my writing process like?

 I’m pretty sure you guys have a good sense of how gut-wrenching and sublime the whole thing is.  Mostly gut-wrenching. 



31 thoughts on “Agony and Ecstacy (But Mostly Agony): The Writing Process

  1. Fun times!! I can relate to some of this. I just finished my first draft of my novel (hooray!) and now I apparently have to edit (booooooo) which is exciting but daunting. I’ve never written something on such a large scale so I’ve just been staring at the 300 pages printed out and mocking me on my kitchen table…

    It knows I’m terrified. My novel is kind of a bitch…

    I wish I had advice for you but I’m new to all this so I don’t have much. All I can say is keep on keepin’ on because I know how good of a writer you are and I want to read that damn novel.

    So get to it, mama.

    Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day!

    • I will if you will! I am so impressed you have those 300 pages. That’s a lot. Let’s put our goggles on and get to it! oxoxo

      On Mon, May 12, 2014 at 11:30 AM, Outlaw Mama wrote:


  2. Maybe some ecstasy will ease the agony you’re experiencing. And get your creative juices flowing. I kid, I kid.

    Have you tried soliciting feedback from other writers? We’re all our own worst critics.

    • WEll, it was definitely good. JEff said it was great. He devoured it and the leftovers. Small hitch: Four hours after dinner I came down with the most violent stomach flu. Unfortunate because you know I’m going to blame the crock pot for that. I love that you asked!

      On Mon, May 12, 2014 at 11:58 AM, Outlaw Mama wrote:


  3. I’ve said exactly the same thing. I wish I could stop writing. I sometimes wish I had no talent for it at all, rather than just enough to miss the brass ring. It’s such a crap shoot anyway – idiots like E.L. James are published, and fabulous writers never make it or end up in the bargain bin. Yes, I am a fount of inspiration today.

    On the other hand, if you don’t try, you definitely don’t make it. So good luck to you. I’d love to one day get one of my novels in shape, but I’m lucky right now to write a sentence and drag myself to work!

  4. “Why am I doing this? Why not just be a voracious and grateful reader? Why do I need to write a novel?”

    Because every single time we read a book we will remember that our calling in life is to write, and we will never be satisfied with just being a grateful reader ever again. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s hard and messy and sometimes awful, but, for better or worse, writing is the way that we express ourselves and the way that we process and interact with the world. Even when it’s a bitch.

  5. i agree with the stepping away. i didn’t look at my manuscript for 3 months before a got some really good feedback from a few readers. now i’m in there editing and cutting away like mad. i have a much better perspective and much more critical eye. the time apart really helped. it’s in there. you’ll get there! 🙂

  6. Writing IS a bitch. I’m with you – it used to be this delightfully romantic endeavor, and now it’s work. But one thing that I like to remember is that every famous writer that I (should not but can’t help) compare myself to was once in my shoes – a newbie, figuring out how to write a book, logging in the hours and the words and the revisions and the epiphanies and the starting all over again. Louise Erdrich was once where you are. And one day, someone will say the same about you.

    So here’s to the marriage. Here’s to the visions and revisions. Here’s to the hope of one day looking back on when we were just starting out.

    • Ahhh, I never think of those famous, gorgeous writers, the Erdrichs, the Tolstoys, the Whartons, the Russells, feeling like they are all thumbs and zero vocabulary or insight or wisdom. But you’re right. They had to pass this way too.

      Write on!

  7. This. Yeah. All of it. Every day.
    And it’s a mistake to read Erdrich and them go back to your writing. It’s like flirting with Brad Pitt, then going home to a sick, nagging husband. Trust me; I’ve done this.
    And my novel…sigh…it’s cooling its heels on the back burner right now until I manage the chutzpah to approach it again.

  8. I agree with the other comments. Writing is impossible, but it’s what makes us feel most at home. So we have to. And we suck. And we do and do and do, and eventually it sucks less. I’ve been working on the same ms for 15 years, and I hate that I’m not done. But I know I’m making progress. It’s getting better each time. So maybe in 15 more years…

  9. Great post. I loved the analogy of writing as a lover! Wish I had more time to write … then I might know if I actually love to write or just love the idea of writing. In the meantime, the idea sustains me 🙂

  10. I relate to so much of this. I’ve revised and revised and revised. And I think now it’s time to start something new and fall in love again…only I feel disloyal to my first love.

  11. I have days like this too. Then there are the days when your fingers cannot fly over the keys fast enough as you try to get down the exquisite thoughts emanating from your brain before they disappear completely (of course, tomorrow they look like yesterday’s lunch left on a plate). I write because I need to – that’s the only way I can explain it.

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