Not Losing Heart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about difficult long-term projects: how much endurance they require, how there are points where the desired outcome seems impossible, and how giving up may actually seem like the logical (and more attractive) option. For example, in my teaching job, it has been necessary to produce scholarship. Here’s how that process has tended to go.

  1. Have jolt of awareness that remaining employed demands publishing of artifact. Summon vague wisp of potential idea.
  2. Launch on research “quest” (jaunty euphemism for painfully methodical gathering and reading of materials).
  3. Gasp, moan, and fight to remain calm upon realization that your idea has already been articulated by other people, with better style than you could ever manage.
  4. Keep expanding/focusing/swerving around your topic until you carve out previously unexplored niche.
  5. Manufacture abstract dotted with shiny glimmers of future goodness. Refer to existing critics and theorists to indicate possession of proper knowledge base but, most importantly, remember to say that you will “demonstrate the significance of” the topic rather than “talk about how cool it is.”
  6. Submit until a willing audience appears.
  7. Rejoice over acceptance, despite chilling enormity of what you’ve just promised to deliver and have yet to create.
  8. Make notes. Make timeline. Make coffee. Make apologies to family.
  9. Draft fast to counter horrifying blank page mode—i.e., blurt out nonsensical cornucopia of huge generalizations, desperate connections, and ludicrous evidence.
  10. Review, reorganize, and refine (aka “rassle”) to a workable core, but save initial ramblings in different file to pilfer at later time if necessary.
  11. Commence another researchapalooza.
  12. Discover that you are being pulled in new direction, which renders more than half of current draft irrelevant.
  13. Gnash teeth and pull hair. Vent. Give up.
  14. Go for walk. Go for run. Go for drinks.
  15. Be shocked when random epiphany prompts another attempt (all hail the subconscious). Incorporate new concept, which leads to unexpected progress.
  16. Live in the zone. Hear self explicate project to every unfortunate person who asks how you are. Watch their eyes glaze over.
  17. Rework until there is an undeniable logic to the discussion, which you even sorta like. Faint twinkle of light at end of tunnel appears.
  18. Continue revision: number of phases at this point will depend on how long you have to complete the project, how much sleep you need to function, and how many times you can reread your draft without shrieking in the manner of gothic heroine pursued by dangerous monster.
  19. Experience perceptible shift to concern with voice. Tighten, transition, thesaurusize, tweak. Become obsessed with alternative ways to say “relevant.”
  20. Locate proofreader (may require begging, pleading, and bribing). Make appropriate changes. Recheck quotations, complete bibliography, format manuscript.
  21. Change title 126 times, only to return to the original.
  22. Labor until you feel the click—that joyful internal affirmation of completion—or until the deadline arrives and you are forced to end the misery.
  23. Wake from writing coma. Notice house is mess, health is mess, self is mess. Relearn how to live among humans.
  24. Celebrate completion and vow never, ever to do this again. Break resolution as soon as memory of suffering fades.

There are similarities to writing mysteries here, obviously. So here’s the question: how do you keep from losing heart when you hit those inevitable setbacks or pauses?

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12 thoughts on “Not Losing Heart”

  1. This took me back to college when writing art history papers, only I bet it’s magnified by a zillion! Fun to read the mental journey. I think this is one of the reasons I don’t like to plot or write synopsis ahead of time. I discover the story as I write it (though admittedly this involves false starts and wrong turns and general feeling of walking through a forest with a blindfold on).

    With fiction, I think the author puts their own heart into the characters and starts to care about them. We want to protect them, but we also know that we have to push them out of their comfort zones. Losing heart happens when the characters become cardboard cutouts instead of feeling real.

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  2. researchapalooza – May I borrow this term? I love it – and it completely describes my work a day paralegal life :). But, to answer your question. And the word but becomes meaningful here – I keep a tube of butt paste (there really is such a thing, It’s for diaper rash) on my writing desk. When I get stuck, figure I will never get through this story, meet my deadline, and am convinced that I should get another passion – I look at the butt paste and remind myself that butt in chair is what it’s all about, and I can always edit the written page. Good post!

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  3. I loved “all hail the subconscious” and “change title 126 times, only to return to the original” especially. Yes, this is like writing novels, but I’ve lost my love of writing literary essays, so I just don’t. I figure I’m a full professor with tenure, so I’ll have to do something like plagiarize something or kill somebody . . . oops, that’s the mystery writing part . . . to lose my job. Right? I still have an unreasonable passion for writing fiction, so that keeps me going. Only do the work that is in your heart. That’s my answer to the question.

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  4. What a fascinating look at what you go through as a professor to publish. It seems similar to writing fiction, but harder to me. More work and less fun. Although I admit, it’s not fun to write fiction, either, when the muse seems to be taking a long vacation. Butt to chair is the only way to get either done, obviously.

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  5. “Thesaursize” – love it. Yes, this is pretty much what I did and what I went through to get my last novel across the finish line. Every time I felt like chucking it and saying, “I quit,” I remembered how much I love these characters and love this story. I read the supportive emails I received and remembered the people who said, “I think this is fantastic. It might be the best thing you’ve ever written.” Then I applied the BIC method.

    Like Diane, I don’t like too much plotting ahead of time. That helps a little because I don’t spend time agonizing over the “rightness” of the outline or synopsis first (although I’m sure I won’t be able to avoid the synopsis forever).

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  6. Thank you so much, everyone, for the comments. You are so wise! I’m glad to hear about your experiences and strategies (butt paste? never thought we’d talk about that here on Mysteristas! HA!).

    @Jan, well said. There are similarities. And neither one is easy! Good luck to us all!

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  7. I’ve been reading James Clear’s blog and he talks alot about systems vs time management. You have revealed here the most commonly practiced writing system, complete with hair pulling and teeth gnashing! So the key question to me is, if that is the system, how do we achieve excellence within it? I believe the answer is to have a counter-formula: wine, coffee, re-reading all the good reviews, and keeping track of important milestones achieved along the way. Plus finding great fellow cheerleaders and writers like the gals on this site!!

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  8. Cynthia this is wonderful! Sad, in some ways, of course, but I love how you’ve written this. I think I might have to post this above my desk. In fact, I’m definitely going to do so–we are in it together. Thanks for sharing!

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