She said to me, “It’s time to start the novel again. Start over on page one, and write the whole thing without stopping. Don’t question; don’t worry. When you get to a stuck spot, just keep writing through it. Start now.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to run to the hills. But oddly, enough, I wanted to dance a jig too.
Who said these words? Mary Reynolds Thompson, my writer’s group coach.
When did she say them? Tuesday, May 2, 2011.
Where? On the phone. My writer’s group is telephonic.
Why did she say them? Ah yes, why indeed.
Mary said them to me because I wanted to quit as a writer, or at least as a novelist. I had been writing a novel about a young gay witch for over two years, when I lost it all in a freak computer crash.
It’s true. Over seven hundred pages. Gone. My hard drive crashed, and when I went to use my trusty backup, I discovered that I had never set up my backup correctly when I bought the computer in 2007. More specifically, I inadvertently unchecked the “documents” box; this meant that not a single document, from 2007 forward, had ever been saved. I discovered this only after my hard drive was destroyed, thinking I didn’t need it because I had my trusty backup. You see the dilemma.
I don’t know why I unchecked that damned box. I don’t remember doing it. Maybe I was brain-dead one night and wasn’t paying attention. I have no idea.
After the crash, I lost the will to write. Or mostly. I farted around on a couple of other projects, but I just couldn’t get back to the novel. It hurt too much. Seven hundred pages is quite a lot. It’s roughly half the length of War and Peace. In my case, I think the crash took the Peace part away, leaving me stuck with War.
“Start over on page one.” I knew Mary was right.
“Keep writing.” I hated her for being right.
“Start now.” I wanted there to be some other way. But there wasn’t.
And so I sat down the next day, on May 3, and started writing all over again, beginning with page one, with the title and everything. And I didn’t stop.
Seven and a half weeks later, on June 20, 2011, I finished the entire first draft.
Sweet Lord Jesus Christ in heaven on a gilded cloud!
Lessons? There have been many:
- Don’t assume you know what your limit is. I really had to push to find mine. It had taken me over two years to write seven hundred pages. How could I even begin to rewrite something like that? I didn’t think I had it in me. I only found out that I did by going for it.
- Have a focus, a deadline, and will. Mary helped me with (scared me into) finding my focus, which was to rewrite the entire thing from start to finish. But I needed a deadline too. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, so I gave myself the deadline of writing ten pages each day, every day. That seemed like too much, but I was up for the challenge (see Lesson #1). And then I had to find my will to keep going, to wipe the muck from my face, get up off the floor of self-pity, and start all over again. Amazing things can be done with a focus, a deadline, and will. Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t fun. At least not at first.
- A period of grief is needed. I couldn’t have rewritten the book right away. I needed those five months to really, really hate the whole process, to be mad at myself, to hate writing, to decide I never wanted to write another novel again. It may sound glib now, but it wasn’t then. It was more like dying a little every day, or like losing a loved one, and having to wake up each morning and be hit with the truth all over again: oh, my loved one is gone.
- Don’t focus on the whole project, just the next step. At times during my rewriting last summer, I was sure I wouldn’t reach the finish line. I didn’t know how the book would end, I was worried it was crap, I didn’t know how to solve certain plot-related problems, blah-blah-blah. So instead I’d tell myself to just write one more page. If I couldn’t do that, I’d shoot for a paragraph. Or even a simple phrase. I’d tell myself, “Write one more. Then see what happens.”
- Have several forms of backup, and test them to make sure they work. Enough said.
- Have a Mary. I needed a nudge to get started again, a kick in the pants that I was either unwilling or incapable of giving myself. I trusted Mary because she has tons of writing experience, and also because she had been extremely compassionate during my period of grief. But she knew when the time was right to give me some tough love. Hail Mary!
After the computer crash, I couldn’t get enough of other people’s wipeout stories. I was crazy for them. I didn’t want to hear the nice, easy, eventless writing accounts; I wanted the blood, the gore, the cracked femurs and broken dreams.
This is why I’m recounting my experience. May it help those of you on the front lines of your own wars right now. What have you out there lost and had to crawl back to, maybe even over broken glass, to find again? Or maybe lost and never found? I don’t know if what I learned from my own misfortune will help you or not. I hope it gives you some respite.