on finding beauty again

There comes a point during revision when you stop seeing your manuscript as a work of art and start treating it like a leaky toilet: “shit, I got Chapter 6 to work, but now Chapter 9 is loose and I need a whole different kind of toilet-glue to hold Chapters 10 and 11 together.”

You make endless trips to the hardware store of your imagination, lugging home ideas and fixes that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. You screw scenes on and rip them out again, come up with the perfect sentence only to realize that you’re going to have to scrap the entire subplot it belongs to.

Where you once had a manuscript, you now have a messy construction site. Your book doesn’t even look like a book anymore—it looks like a pile of broken stuff waiting to be hauled to the dump. You don’t feel like a writer anymore, either—you feel like a deranged cook sweating over a boiling vat of soup that only tastes worse and worse with every ingredient you throw in to fix your last mistake.

You can’t remember what inspired you to write your novel. It’s a vicious ugly cold-hearted thing and it’s eating you alive. You’re a vicious, ugly, cold-hearted thing too, an evil plumber with a bag full of tools. You couldn’t find the pulse of your novel if you tried. It’s turned into a dead thing—or a thing towards which you’ve become dead.

“Writing is hard work,” you reassure yourself.
“Don’t tell me to take a break,” you snap at your well-meaning loved ones.

You fight your way grimly through the brambles.

Meanwhile, the world goes on lush and sun-filled just outside your field of view.

**

The realization that you’ve become numb to beauty is a terrifying thing. To wake up and discover that for days—weeks, months—you’ve been living like a machine. How can this machine-person create a work of great beauty? How can this person who sweats and curses and won’t even stop to take a walk in the trees ever expect to move people?

**

You panic.

Take the break they’ve been telling you to take for days/weeks/months.

Go for that walk you’ve been putting off.
Let yourself (gasp!) spend time with friends instead of scuttling off to your work space the second that dinner is over.

At first, it feels like it isn’t working. You’re just as wound up and single-minded as you were a few days ago. If you’re going to be like this, you might as well just work.

**

But when you try to work, you just get frustrated. So you go for another walk. You cook a meal. You dig in the garden. You read some poems.

**

You’re still too much of a machine to appreciate anything.

You’re hard inside. Functional. You’d rather be working.

But slowly, imperceptibly, beauty starts to push its head out of the ground like a tomato seedling. Your heart still feels like packed clay, but there it is—something living.

When you notice it, you’re so relieved you can’t help it: you fall on the ground and cry.

**

You can lose your soul doing just about anything. You can lose it in an office, you can lose it at an ashram, and you can lose it writing. The holiness of a given endeavor depends on you, not on the project, and even writing or painting or dancing can become savage and awful when you’re doing it out of fear instead of love.

There’s a fine line between working hard and becoming a monster, but it’s there and it’s real and it’s terrifying.

Today, INTERN is grateful for tomato seeds, and for all the people and songs and books that help her find her way to beauty again.

Comments

  1. Love the toilet metaphor! I'm living it... and my garden is one of my sources of hope, too. Partly when I remind myself that my manuscript may be at least as much like a garden as a horrifying construction site.

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  2. "You can lose your soul doing just about anything. You can lose it in an office, you can lose it at an ashram, and you can lose it writing. The holiness of a given endeavor depends on you, not on the project, and even writing or painting or dancing can become savage and awful when you’re doing it out of fear instead of love."

    I love this so much. And it feels so true to me. Thanks for putting that in perspective.

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  3. Oh, INTERN. This was just lovely. Thank you for reminding us (well, me) that we don't have to look for all the fun and beauty of writing on the page: we can be writers with peripheral as well as tunnel vision.

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  4. I'm in the midst of the construction site. I so needed this.

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  5. Such a powerful reminder. At no time does the I SUCK monster attack so ferociously as when we are revising. It's easy to lose the joy. My favorite technique is to have a new project I'm working on while I revise the old one. Keeps me feeling fresh. And overworked.

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  6. Amazing post! I've felt this way before, but haven't been able to put it to words, at least not as beautifully and accurately as you have.

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  7. I think the Intern is brilliant! That was a really gorgeous post. Thanks!

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  8. This is so true. Thanks for posting a helpful reminder.

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  9. Love. Your blog was my tomato seed for today. ;)

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  10. speechless. excellent job. loved it.

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  11. Today I appreciated a cardinal flying by and then I paused because I was appreciating the fact that I was taking the time to appreciate something. I've been so wrapped up in stuff that I had forgotten how to live, be happy, and take the time to appreciate beauty. I can definitely relate to your post today. Well said.

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  12. Ever thought of becoming a chef? It is easier; at least you can lay out all your ingredients in full view. Trouble with writing, you never know where you hid the garlic.

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  13. Oh wow, well said! This in particular:

    "The holiness of a given endeavor depends on you, not on the project, and even writing or painting or dancing can become savage and awful when you’re doing it out of fear instead of love."

    Ditto what HWPetty said.

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  14. Thank you, INTERN. Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing.

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  15. Every time I read your posts, INTERN, I think: "when she does finally finish this novel, it's going to be amazing."

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  16. This is so on point. Thanks. Today I'm grateful for Diet Coke.

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  17. Thank you so much for this post! It really hit home for me... I'm ready to find the beauty again... in everything!

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  18. oh I'm good at all the beauty round about, my eye is ever ready to shoot window-wards. It's garnering the strength (a lazybones confesses) to battle with the baggy jumper of my prose. Maybe it's a computer problem. Like DOT says about the garlic hiding, it's just being able to see one screen's-worth at a time and keep the rest, with or without excess of garlic, in my head at the same time.
    Great site this, INTERN.
    Today my tomato seed is my 12 year old, miaowing on the sofa, tie covered in paint.

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