Making Meaning and Slaying Your Dragons
Updated: Jan 27
When I was asked to do this talk several years ago, I decided I would talk about Making Meaning – because as writers I believe that’s what we do. We tell stories about life, about love, and in those stories, we send messages we believe are meaningful: Life is Complicated, Love is a Decision, Love Conquers All—whatever it is we believe about life and love, we create people and stories to make that belief manifest. We make meaning.
STALLED, LOST, AND OVERWHELMED
But sometimes we get stalled, we get overwhelmed. We lose our way.
I started shuffling through my brain and my bookshelves, searching for wise things to say about fear and self doubt, about writing, about making meaning. Meanwhile, I carried on with my work in progress.
My novel Eighteen Days is the story of Anna, an artist who is going blind and wants to see the child she gave up at birth—before she loses her sight. Three weeks ago I was closing in on the last few scenes. I was almost at the point where I could step back and try to figure out what it was I’d written, and start revising it, polishing it, getting the thing ready for market.
Then Alec, one of my secondary characters, came out of a pivotal scene and instead of moving the story one step closer to the end, he went on strike. He was in crisis on the highway between Tofino and Ucuelet. He was either driving back to a showdown with his wife, or heading for—
Well, it doesn’t matter where he might have been going, because he refused to go anywhere.
I decided, give him a day or so to figure it out.
But days went by and he didn’t figure it out. Neither did I. Then it was a week … then two weeks. I began to wonder if the book made any sense at all. Did I have enough—enough drama? Enough excitement? Enough meaning? With Alec in limbo on the West Coast of the Island, Eighteen Days morphed into four hundred pages of sludge. I’d been writing this novel, this complicated and exciting story, and now—
Face it, Vanessa, you’re lost. You don’t know where you’re going.
FIGHTING MY WAY BACK
You need to put your hands on the keyboard and write something, get out of this place.
You need to figure out who Alec is. How could you write 400 pages and not know this important character?
It wasn’t Alec stopped on the highway, it was me, the Author. And if the creator of Alec’s universe didn’t know where she was going, Alec didn’t have a hope.
In the midst of this mess I bought a new book by one of my favorite authors. Yes, I thought, this is what I need. When I envision Eighteen Days up on the shelves, I see it in the same part of the bookstore as this author’s work. I’ll buy the book, read it, find inspiration, some sense of what I need to do.
I read the book. I was hooked, captivated by this wonderful story—but on my computer Alec was stalled on the highway. I had no idea how to finish Eighteen Days, how to make my story wonderful. Alec had defeated me. Maybe I had to go back to the beginning, start the story all over again. Maybe I could never finish it.
Maybe I wasn’t a writer any more. A couple of weeks ago I had a problem with a character. Add a good book written by another author, and suddenly the problem isn’t the character—it’s me.
Then I remembered I was giving a talk at the Valentines Day brunch.
What business did I have talking to a group of writers? What could I tell them? Maybe I once knew something about writing, but whatever it was, I’d lost it.
Have any of you ever been in this frightening place?
SUCCESS, FAILURE AND FEAR
A couple of years ago I gave a workshop on “Success, Failure, and Fear.” I interviewed 9 successful romance authors who between them had sold 102 books. One of the questions I asked was whether they’d ever felt like a failure as a writer. Almost every one of these women answered “yes”.
Multi-published writers answer the question: “Have you ever felt like a failure as a writer?“
Once I faced a plot hole/blank screen and couldn’t figure out any “what-ifs” at all. I couldn’t see into my characters’ heads/lives/futures.
…with each book I sold… I always thought I’d somehow get it wrong or not manage to pull the story together well enough to make the editor want to buy it.
sometimes I really have to push myself to keep going
I thought I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, or how to do it, and I stopped writing
[I felt] sheer panic at the task of writing another book, of hitting a dead-end halfway through.
I don’t know if Shakespeare had crippling self-doubts. Certainly, John Steinbeck did. He said, “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.”
So what’s going on? Why do so many of us feel these doubts?
The Van Gogh Blues
Eric Maisel, in “The Van Gogh Blues,” says, “… the act of creation … requires bravery. Our ability to make meaning and to maintain meaning is threatened by the intrinsic hardness of creative work. It is odd but true that most creators do not recognize this reality. Instead of crediting creating with being profoundly taxing, they chalk up their difficulties to personal weakness. This can’t be their intention, any more than it would be the intention of a hiker who comes to the edge of a cliff to blame himself for not being able to fly. The hiker would say to himself, How can I get down there? By rappelling? By going all the way around, even though it will take me a week? Creators, faced by this cliff, say I am an idiot.”
Well, we’re not idiots. We’re making meaning. We’re making magic.
What we do is difficult.
Eric Maisel to the rescue
Creators blame themselves for the fact that it is hard to write a good novel … They come to the edge of their work and see the cliff, they find themselves in the middle of their work and experience the vertigo of not knowing, and instead of naming the cliff the obstacle they berate themselves. Why do they do this self-unfriendly thing? Because they know that they often do not try hard enough, so they generalize from this secret truth to the falsehood that it is all their fault, that … if only they had more guts, more discipline, a larger talent, more staying power. What they need is more action and less berating. … Creators must take action in service of their creative work. Rappelling may frighten them. Going around may take a year or a decade. Turning around and going home is no answer, as that is a path without heart. They must go forward, whether that means jumping off the cliff or taking the slow way around, composing a symphony in a hour, like Mozart, composing a symphony in a decade, like Beethoven.”
More action and less berating.
Somehow, I’d gone from “Alec, my character, doesn’t know what to do” to “I’m a failure, there’s no point in continuing.” The truth is, dealing with Eric is harder than I thought. So I can berate myself for being a failure, or I can work on finding a solution.
To me the incredible thing—the magic, really, about creating stories, about creating meaning, is that when I hit one of these difficult patches and finally get past berating myself, finally square off and look at the problem of getting down the cliff—or in this case, of getting Alec to take action—I begin to see solutions instead of problems. Monday morning I was a failure and an impostor. By Monday evening I knew I had to do something about it and I spent an hour tossing the problem around with a perceptive friend, hearing myself talk, and finally began to see why Alec wouldn’t act—not because I was a failure as a creator, not because I’d created a flat character. But because I’d been trying to push him towards a decision that didn’t fit his character.
So what would this person—this real person I’d created—what would he do in this situation?
Tuesday morning I woke up and sat in bed with my morning coffee and my laptop and began writing again. Alec had direction, his own direction. I was a writer telling a story, making meaning. The magic was back.
Writing is hard. The path of making meaning is littered with high cliffs. Inevitably, we sometimes fall into the trap of blaming ourselves because we can’t fly. So what’s the solution?
Eric Maisel says we need more action and less berating.
As for those successful writers I interviewed. Here’s what five of them suggest:
Shut out the outside world. Go back to your roots and write one word at a time
Get angry. Often I’m angry at myself for wasting time stewing about something over which I have no control. I’ll do that for a couple of days, then get fed up with my whining. I develop an “I’ll show you” attitude and I get my butt back in the chair.
The crippling effects of self doubt and fear are dragons never wrestled to the floor by lying awake at 2 am, or making promises to myself. Failure and defeat go away only when I stop thinking about the problem and focus on solutions.
The single-minded mantra of “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this” has gotten me through some very tough spots in my career. No one can knock you down faster or propel you forward quicker than you can
The biggest problem with negative feelings is that they are invasive, persistent, and non-productive. They sap the joy out of writing and wreck havoc on the writer’s gift. You’ve got to gird your writerly lions and simply be prepared to battle the fear demons when the miserable little beasts show themselves.
Sometimes you fly…
Remember, creation is difficult. Sometimes you come to a cliff. But the wonderful thing is that if you can wrestle the demons of self doubt and tackle the cliff head on, you’re making meaning. You’re making magic.
Sometimes, you can even fly.