In January of 2016, a dear friend gave me the gift of a little Daruma doll. Growing out of Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition, the idea with these figurines [and the one I received is very minimalist compared to many of them] is to encourage perseverance and working towards a goal. When one sets a goal, one eye on the eyeless doll is filled in. When the goal is complete, one completes the second eye.
I received this gift early on in my novel-writing process. Completing the novel became my goal, and I filled the first eye in, a little design in ballpoint pen. I hung it on a houseplant, and I wrote and wrote.
Three years and three months have passed. The novel is finished. In fact, I’ve finished it twice, realizing the need for rewrites after the first time, and here I am again, complete, ready to face the world, and I haven’t yet filled in that second eye.
It has watched me draft, cut, revise, and draft again, seen the challenge and the celebration. I brought it here across the ocean. It sits on my bedside table now, amid the growing piles of books and dust and stray papers it accumulates, half buried sometimes, and later reappearing, still the cyclops, still waiting. And I wonder, when is the right time?
I have grown significantly over the course of this project. What began as two chapters during the Minnesota Writing Project’s Summer Institute has become 115,000 words, and the person who wrote and honed them is different now than he was. How does our writing change us? What do we learn, and how do we grow?
I have learned perhaps most explicitly about writing craft. I have waded through lots of ideas about what good writing looks like, read books along the way that have inspired me, or sometimes shown me styles of writing I might want to avoid. I’ve read blog posts about technique, and written some posts myself that have taught me more in the thinking-through of them. I’ve worked to incorporate all this new knowledge into my own work with varying success, thinking always about reasons behind my choices and the ultimate impact on the reader.
I have learned too about being productive. Whereas I once languished for months at a time, waiting for the ideas to percolate, I’ve now learned how to push myself forward through that lack of inspiration. In truth, the ideas almost never came to me during those long breaks. I recognize that, subconsciously, I was trying to avoid the project, overwhelmed by the hard work it truly required. Instead, inspiration came when I focused in on the problems, when I took long walks and consciously mulled through ideas and possibilities, when I typed out long strings of hems and haws, letting my mind wander, but only within the confines of the story, until at last the idea I needed came.
I have learned as well, and this is intimately related to the above, about self confidence. Writing can be an isolating journey. We have an idea, and we work through it carefully and slowly, perhaps discussing it with others, but always with the knowledge that, at least in my case, no one but me has ever actually seen the real thing. There’s a lot of negative self-talk that happens here. A lot of but what if it’s awful?, and I’m wasting my time. A lot of staring at the screen.
What has most helped me fight this is outside affirmation. When I was brave enough to show my work, and others found positive things there… what a feeling. As a member of the writing community, I seek to pass that feeling on to others when I can.
The step I’m still working on (that I think many of us are working on) is the internalizing of that confidence. That it need not come from the outside, because it exists within us, this positive appraisal of our work. Getting a boost from outside helps me do it internally. That’s where I am continuing to strive.
The protagonist of Migration, Gaea, is not me. She lives in another time and society. But there are similarities between us. It’s what has enabled me to write her as I have, and along the way, our journeys have deepened one another. Writing is so often an opening of the self. I find that valuable and beautiful.
The Daruma stares at me. Are you finished? it seems to ask. I know I haven’t filled in that beckoning eye quite yet, because of that fear, because of that lingering doubt. I suppose I’m waiting for someone else to tell me it is really done, an agent, a publisher, that external motivation is still holding me.
But I must remember too that writing, as much as it may involve expression of the self, is at least as much about communicating. There must be an audience at the other end, and querying out there–it is for that audience, those future readers.
Thank you for following the journey with me.