Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2011

When You're Trying Too Hard

In my senior year, I set a goal to make state in one of my swim events. In order to achieve that goal, I did what seemed to me the obvious choice: I worked hard. I signed up for double workouts, in the morning with the city team, and in the afternoon with the school team. I made sacrifices, too. Instead of being in the school play (The King and I), I swam. I could have tried to manage both, but then my swimming would have suffered and I didn't want that. I swam five hours a day every day. I did not miss workouts. Ever. I did not miss meets. If the coach told us to swim hard, I swam as hard as I could. If he told us to swim easy, I still swam hard.

For a couple of months, this strategy paid off. I dropped a lot of time in my events. If I kept going like this, I would definitely have made state. I would have had a good chance to place overall at state. I didn't mess around during practice. I became known as the leader when we did drills like kicking. While other swimmers reserved their strength for the final part of the practice, I gave everything I had from my first minute in the pool. I wasn't late for practice. Ever. During Christmas vacation, I worked out with both teams every day. And when January came around, I was slower than I had been the month before. February, the month of the region meet in which I had to qualify for state, I wasn't slower, but I seemed to have hit a plateau. I became frustrated, began to tell myself that I couldn't do it, and expected the worst. Indeed, I ended up missing going to state by a few seconds in each event.

I enjoyed swimming after that, but I certainly didn't join the swim team in college. I told myself that I wasn't "born: to be a swimmer. It's only been in the last few years as I've had some success in triathlon that I can look back and see clearly what I was doing wrong. I was simply trying too hard. All around me, when I asked people how I got better at something, I heard them say that I wasn't trying hard enough, that I wasn't giving it my all, that I had to dig deeper and push harder. And I am sure there are some people for whom this sort of advice is useful. But my tendency (and as I have discovered, the tendency of many fellow insane triathletes/Ironman competitors) is doing too much and never taking a break. Recovery is actually an important component of any sport. A hard workout rips apart your muscles and it is actually in sleep, recovery, and in eating that the damage is repaired and you become stronger. If you keep tearing the muscles, guess what happens? Exactly what happened to me.

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As an athlete, this has meant that I force myself to take recovery days. When I first asked a coach to help me with my training for an Ironman in 2005, he took a look at my exercise journal and the first thing he insisted on was four days off of training. I was nervous about that, wondering if I was going to lose my edge and start sliding downhill. He assured me that he would work me plenty hard, but he just needed to make sure that I was rested before I went into it. So I found other things to do, like timing myself on changing back and front tires on my bike until I could do it in five minutes flat so that I didn't get nervous about the prospect of having to change a tire in a race situation. I have learned since then that for me, I need to err on the side of less rather than more. One day a week is as much hard interval training as I can manage. The rest of the days I have been finding ways to get my kids or friends to workout with me so that I have an "excuse" to go a little easier since I need to stay with them. If I have a race, I need to take a full week,and sometimes two weeks, off any hard training afterward. And not every race is going to be an all-out race. Some of them are "B" races and I don't push as hard on them.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I think that trying harder is a problem I have been seeing in writers more and more often lately. And my guess is that it's not just in triathlon and writing. It's a life lesson that needs to be learned. If you know that you haven't really tried hard enough in your writing, then this essay is not for you. But if you keep trying your absolute best and you are still failing, then I am speaking to you. It is time to take some recovery. It is time to do some other things that will help you in your race. I may not be able to tell you what those other things are, but then again, I might. Give your creative energies a chance to recover, to digest what you have already learned, and to think up new ideas. It is time not to stop trying but to try differently. And possibly even less hard.

Let me tell you how I know when a writer is trying too hard and needs some time to recover. A writer who comes to a conference and pays for a critique, then seems to take the words excessively hard. If asked what is wrong, this writer explains that this manuscript has been to a half dozen different workshops and has gone to writers' group numerous times. At first, people said that the problem was one thing. Then the writer tried to fix that, and another problem popped up. Then the writer tried another solution, but that didn't work, either. Finally, people started giving the writer advice that seems to suggest that he should go back to the first manuscript he ever wrote and start all over again. The writer ends up feeling like his willingness to work hard and listen and take feedback is actually making him farther and farther from the goal than doing nothing would have done. And guess what? In a way, he is right.

I have a problem with accepting feedback over enthusiastically. I have actually had to stop going to writers' groups (which I love) because when I leave the group, I don't remember anymore where my manuscript began and other people's ideas left off. I start writing to committee instead of to my own internal vision of what a good manuscript can be. In one particular case fairly recently, I had an editor who saw a draft of a manuscript after years of revision and multiple rounds of editing and she asked simply to see the first draft again because she felt like she would have a better view of what I was trying to do originally if she saw that. I was embarrassed to send her the original draft, which I knew was riddled with errors, but I did it because I knew that I had lost my way. I had listened to too many voices and I had been writing by committee. If this sounds familiar to you, you may need to stop going to your writers' group, at least for a little while, if not permanently. You may have better success learning how to deal with this problem than I have. Be sure to explain to your group that it isn't their fault, that it's more likely your own inability to filter out other opinions. (It may actually be the groups' fault, I don't know, but it may be nicer not to say so anyway.)

Talking to other writers and editors who run workshops, I have discovered I am not the only person who has seen this problem. Sometimes it manifests itself as a perfect first paragraph which then turns out to be nothing like the rest of the book. In some cases, the first paragraph could be attached to a different book, or the book as it is needs a new paragraph. I think more often the problem is one of being too close to the manuscript and the author may not be able to do either of these successfully. Characters jump around, fervently doing things to show that they are active, not passive, without the interiority that would make us care about them. And nothing matters, somehow. Another manifestation of working too hard is when a manuscript is lacking obvious elements that the writer has been told are 'cliched.' Things like who is who, where they are, and what the world system is (magical, scientific or realistic, for example). Another problem that is harder to describe but is pretty obvious is the lack of energy. Sometimes working on the same project for too long just leads it dead and lifeless. It's been overworked and you can point to details like explaining too much or the characters feeling uninteresting, but the underlying problem is one inside the writer.

So, my advice: if you have workshopped a manuscript already, don't bring it back to another workshop. If you have brought a manuscript to a writers' group once, don't bring it back again. Don't ask for an opinion from another editor when you've already had one editor give you feedback (unless you have a reason for believing that editor might want to buy your manuscript, in which case, you're not talking generalities about good writing, but specifics about the market). As a writer, you are in the business of telling stories. Multiple stories. You need to think about the long view here, and it isn't about any one particular manuscript. It's about figuring out what you tell best, and sometimes that may take more than one or two manuscripts to figure out. Your first novel is probably not going to be the one that sells. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.) Your second novel is probably not going to be the one that sells. I think I saw a study once that said the average novelist sold their fifth finished manuscript, which made me feel like I must be the slow child in the class, because it took me twenty.

I know that isn't what any writer wants to hear, to put aside a manuscript, that this one isn't the right one. But I think you will get farther faster in the business if you get in the habit of writing a manuscript, giving it time to sit, and then working on something else in the meantime. You'll have lots of possible manuscripts to talk about when you get an agent or an editor and you will learn a lot about different ways of telling different stories naturally. If you keep working at one manuscript, you may not learn as much. I'm not saying you have to tell yourself that you will never go back to a manuscript that has been worked too hard, but you may not. If you have a thousand other, newer, better story ideas in ten years, that one may not matter to you at all. Or it may, but you will spend the next ten years figuring out how to tell that story that is so very difficult and important to you. At least, that is what I hope when I consider a few manuscripts of mine that are still waiting for me to be a good enough writer for them.

A writer friend of mine once told me that he believed that every story he wrote was going to be sold. It wasn't true, and it was untrue for years before he started selling things, but he said he felt that he needed to believe it was true because without the hope of success he would have given up on writing on his first attempt and never given himself a chance to learn what he needed to learn. I certainly understand that. Writing isn't exactly like swimming. But let me suggest that if you expect to win every race you enter, you are crazy. I tell my kids when I teach them to ride a bike that they should expect to fall down 100 times before they learn how to ride a bike. I think this is a slight exaggeration, but I want to make sure they know what they're getting into. If you need to tell yourself that you are a great writer who only needs to be discovered, I won't stand in your way. If, like another writer friend of mine, you believe that if only you are willing to revise enough (and defining revision broadly so that it means, changing every single word of your book), you will eventually sell your novel, keep trying harder and harder. It may work better for you than it has for me.

If, however, you think that you are just an inch away from giving up writing entirely, if you want to burn your manuscript in a trash incinerator so that no one ever sees it, if you are ready to give up on your dream, then maybe your mind and body are trying to tell you something. Maybe it's time to let this one go. And don't write at all for a while. You need some recovery. Your writing muscles are torn apart and you need to feed them and let them rebuild. How do you do that? Read some books, the ones that you think have nothing to do with what you're trying to write. Watch the TV shows that you've been meaning to get to. Laugh. Go on vacation and see a part of the world you have always wanted to see. Meet up with old friends and go to lunch. You might even do some house cleaning, though that might be a last resort and only an attempt to make you want to go back to writing since anything else is better than vacuuming. The point is, you are the kind of person who doesn't need to be told to work harder. Maybe you can work smarter later. After you've rested and relaxed and remembered what it is that writing is about, anyway. The fun.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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