Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing Scared

By Laurel Corona

“Writing scared” is a feeling any serious writer will understand perfectly. Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it, and in that case, why bother?
In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems to smaller ones that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten. Most of my students, to their surprise, did just that.
In the years I wrote Young Adult books for Lucent Books I didn’t think about the 120-page length. I thought about writing 6 consecutive 20-page papers about various subtopics. That length of paper wasn’t too scary for me–after all I’d gotten through grad school, hadn’t I? Within that 20-page chapter I asked myself, “Can you write a paragraph about Jomo Kenyatta? A page about colonialism?” Voila! A 120-page book took shape sentence by sentence because I was successful in never seeing it as a 120-page book.
A few years ago, the same thing got me through writing my first full-length book, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. An accurate and compelling portrait of the Jewish Partisan movement? Yikes! A contribution to the literature about the Holocaust? Double yikes! A page about the Nazi invasion of Lithuania? Yes. A paragraph about ghetto administrator Jacob Gens? Yes. A book? Eventually.
The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy. The biggest difference between my attitude and theirs, I used to tell my students, is that experience has given me confidence that it will work out well. I know I can write what I put my mind to. I just have to figure out the baby steps every time.
I’m thinking about this a lot right now, as my fourth novel, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD is finished and headed for market.  Soon I’ll be starting on my fifth, based on an idea I’ve had for several years. The thought scares me as much as starting THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD did, or FINDING EMILIE, or PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, or THE FOUR SEASONS. Some things never change. Can I write a novel about life in New York just before World War I? Wow, I don’t know about that. It’s pretty big. It’s awfully scary. Can I whittle it down into doable pieces? Awfully glad I think so.
So here’s some advice for anyone out there thinking about writing a book: try not to think about writing a book.  Try to think only about writing what is happening at that moment in your narrative, whether fiction or non-fiction.  For fiction, write dialogue, write sensory descriptions, write what people do, write what is transpiring right then. For non-fiction (assuming you have a pretty good working outline already) think only about the immediate matter at hand. Try not to focus on how much is left to do, or sections you might still be weeks or months off from writing.  
Stay in the now.  A very long but enjoyable process awaits, by which you discover to your amazement that it adds up to a book, one “now” at a time.


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