I've been working on a memoir for about two years now, with lots of starts and stops. I've thrown out hundreds of pages.
Ramping Up, Then Slowing Down
This year I worked with a mentor, Wendy Dale, to finally get the right structure in place. I read Save the Cat! by screenwriter Blake Snyder. I outlined the dramatic arc of every book I read and studied its strengths and weaknesses. I began to understand what makes a story come together.
In spring I finished a chapter-by-chapter outline of my memoir. Then I got pregnant and completely shut down. Between the constant morning sickness and the mental fog, I couldn't imagine writing anything. I played computer games. I watched TV. I steeped in boredom.
My Second Wind
About a month ago, I got a second wind. I decided to finish the rough draft of the new outline before the baby comes in late January. Since then I've been writing a thousand words a day and a chapter a week. I've never been more productive.
I realize now that I needed that break between the writing and intensive study to let all the new knowledge sink in. They way compost needs time to break down so it can support new growth.
Stopping vs. Pausing
In addition to writing, I'm also taking an online essay-writing class taught by Amy Paturel. Each Wednesday she sends out a quote to discuss. This week she sent one from Stephen King's book, On Writing:
“Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
I've always had mixed feelings about stopping. I feel guilty whenever I miss a day of writing. I worry that I'll die in a car crash and never get to accomplish my dream, because I was too busy watching "Teen Mom" and playing Minecraft. But I also believe in honoring life's ebbs and flows.
Cheryl Strayed wrote something in her advice column, "Dear Sugar," that has always resonated with me:
"When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn't have written my book before I did. I simply wasn't capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. ... I had to write a lot of sentences that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood .... and grow up."
When should you take Stephen King's advice, and when should you look to Cheryl Strayed for permission to let the work progress as it will?
I think it comes down to self-knowledge. Are you stopping out of fear and avoidance? If so, examine that and then get back to work. You feel bad now, but you'll feel better when you've broken through and returned to the page.
Or do you need a pause, because you're tired and depleted and you need time to reflect and refill the well?
Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the difference between stopping and pausing. But this time, I know I made the right decision. I'm glad I paused. Because the wind in my hair has never felt better.