I met with Jennie Nash, my book coach, and something she said keeps echoing in my mind. I’ve written it multiple times in my notebook, and woke up thinking it this morning: Rest in what you’ve created.
The essence of what came out of Jennie’s feedback is that the spine of my story is not quite there yet. She says I’m close. I’ve laid the groundwork. But it’s not clear.
And I know she’s right. There’s something essential I’m after. I can feel it. I can almost taste what the story should be, but it eludes me. This has been my problem from the beginning. Or rather, this has been my journey: a search for something essential at the heart of ever-accumulating words.
The truth is that it’s easier for me to spot what is wrong than to produce what is right. After I first finished a complete draft of my novel in 2018, I could see how much was missing from it: continuity, clear purpose, and especially emotion. I tried again. And again. Each time I’ve come closer to what this story is about, to what it’s supposed to be.
I’m willing to scrap everything to get to that core, what Jennie calls the spine of my story. And I’ve done so several times. Jennie pointed out that I’m doing this in my outline: I establish character, setting, and conflict, then scrap it mid-story and start over. Multiple times. She followed this observation with that phrase: Rest in what you’ve created.
Why do I repeatedly set up compelling situations, then move on to something else? There are likely deep psychological reasons for this that I won’t pretend to understand. But this pattern puts me face to face with something I’ve carried with me for much of my life: a sense of feeling rushed. It’s an undertow to my actions. Periodically it surfaces, and only then do I realize how much drag it’s creating.
It’s an irony that still amazes me: rushing slows me down. When I’m late leaving the house, I inevitably drop my papers and lose my keys. I have to force myself to slow down to avoid panic and detrimental speed. I’ve come to believe that my natural pace, a steady tick built into my nervous system, is slower than that of others. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing a novel in which trees become characters. Trees live at a pace I can relate to.
When I pay attention to trees I feel grounded. Am I missing what’s really important (in life, in writing) because I’m in such a rush to keep up with the world? I fear that the things I love—quiet moments, lyrical descriptions, warm feelings and quiet truth—are boring and easily dismissed by others. In writing my novel I’ve set up deep problems, then rushed off into exciting dramatic moments. But because the excitement isn’t tied to the real problems at the heart of the narrative, it becomes meaningless.
As I hunker down into revision, I feel like an archeologist, digging for bones, trying to find the spine of my story. Or a sculptor excavating forms.1
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”Michelangelo
Writers don’t start with a block of marble, we start with a blank page. But the number of words that go into a manuscript, the number of pages that pile up, feel heavy like stone. Sometimes the weight of all those words and thoughts and ideas drags me down. So Jennie’s words offer an alternative that resonates: Rest in what you’ve created.
Maybe if I stop rushing off to adventure, maybe if I hunker down and dig into the dirt I stand on, maybe if I study the block of marble that is my manuscript, I’ll be able to get a grip on the elusive core of my story.
Do you ever feel like you’re missing something because you’re rushing to keep up?
1When I searched for an exact quote, I came across these images of Michelangelo’s figures emerging from blocks of marble. The accompanying text is also lovely.
Jennie Nash is the founder of Author Accelerator, which matches writers with book coaches, and also trains and certifies book coaches.
My work with Jennie Nash is supported in part by the Maryland State Arts Council (msac.org).