But when it comes to writing fiction, for some reason I have acquired the belief that every time I sit down to write a short story it has to be perfect. Unlike non-fiction and poetry, I have actually never really written much fiction, at least not in recent years (way back in elementary school I was writing stories all the time). Although I have created stories in my head for years, I have usually not written them down. Now, I am embarking on an activity that I don't have much practical experience in, and yet somehow I have been expecting myself to simply get it right - and not just right, but perfect - the first time. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
No wonder things have been so difficult.
This month I have taken a step back from writing short stories. I have returned again to focus on poetry. I began my poem-a-day project last month, and lately I have begun reading collections of poetry from some of my favourite poets, reading books about the mechanics of how to write poetry, reading a book of essays on poetics, and even flipping through my copy of Poet's Market. Taking this step back from fiction has reminded me of the value of practice, and of using exercises to experiment with different techniques and write in ways that I wouldn't have explored otherwise. And the other day while reading, I came across this line in Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook:
"...when the writer's material requires a change in tone, or some complex and precise maneuver, the writer has no idea how to proceed, the poem fails, and the writer is frustrated."
This sounds so exactly like what I have been facing when I have tried writing fiction lately. And the solution? Mary Oliver recommends practice, and an exploration of the craft of poetry, expanding the writer's range of skills so that when the change comes, the writer will be ready for it.
Mary Oliver's statement reminded me of something I recently jotted down for myself when I was reading through a set of my old morning pages: "When you are in transition, things that were once easy may feel hard again."
Before they get easy again, I will have to work through the messy and awkward time of transition and change. But to allow that change to occur, I will have to keep showing up and practicing, without any expectation of creating work that looks or sounds good, but just creating it to get through to the other side. The other evening, when I was writing my daily poem, I wrote: "The poem becomes a rope... / and word by word you pull yourself / back across to the other side." I like the idea of going back across to the other side. Of course, it is not really backwards, because we can only go forwards, but it is in a way a recovery of a way of seeing that we once knew but have since forgotten.
So right now what I'm going to focus on is not creating polished, finished products (revision is another skill that I will have to learn in time) but rather building my skills as a writer and building a habit of daily writing. Writing everyday, without worrying about what comes out of it. (If I write enough, something will come out of it eventually.) Using writing exercises to practice different techniques so that I will be more capable of writing what needs to be written. (Because that is the hardest thing, having words within me that need to be written or given voice, but not knowing how to do it.) I feel that my writing style and my approach to writing is gradually changing and shifting. I am growing more comfortable in my own personal style, at the same time that I often find myself puzzled about what it is that I actually want to write. Times of transition are never comfortable.
Practice not so that you can get it perfect, because you will never will. Practice not so that one day you can show up to the performance and then go home afterwards and be done with it, because there is no final performance and the practice will never be done. Practice because the practice itself is the goal of the journey. The goal of the journey is the process, not the product, because there is no product, only process. Only living. Only journeying on, day after day, and learning to love the journey and the practice for themselves and not for what they might bring you. Only practice. Again and again.