Guest Post – Writing Process

— I got this email about process from a writer friend and was overwhelmed by its succinct kick-in-the-face truth. With permission, I’m sharing it anonymously with y’all.

When Rose was about six weeks old, she was awful. She cried all the time, nonstop ear-piercing wailing. It was like living with a police siren or an alarm clock that wouldn’t stop. We were all miserable. I’d gone back to work and was exhausted. Joanna was flailing, scared, trying to deal with the baby and her own exhaustion, grading papers in whatever nonexistent spare time she had–while she was nursing, mostly.

And Rose– well she must’ve been miserable too, or why else would she be screaming like that?

We couldn’t stop it. That was the unexpectedly terrible thing about having an unhappy baby in the house. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong, we couldn’t make it better, and we couldn’t stop the awful crying that was assailing us all the time. We became furious. At each other, mostly. And I at least was furious at myself too: what was wrong with me, that I, who’d always been good with kids, couldn’t do this simple thing, couldn’t make a baby stop crying?

To be honest, I was pretty angry at the baby, too. How come she didn’t like me!? I knew better than to take her screaming personally, but I did anyway (and then got even more angry at myself). Mainly what I remember from those dark weeks was coming home from an ever-longer commute to a frazzled, tired spouse and a miserable, crying tired baby, and not being able to help any of it. Actually, I was angry at all of us. This domestic stereotype was not my beautiful life!

I remember one afternoon in particular. I came home, Joanna was in the kitchen trying to do something about dinner (she’s never liked cooking dinner, I’ve always liked it, and the fact that my work and commute meant that she had to do it was one more source of constant frustration to both of us). The baby was on a blanket on the floor, screaming, as usual.

“She’s crying,” I said, stupidly. (I like to think it was exhaustion making me stupid.)

“Pick her up!” Joanna said. “Hold her!”

So I did. She cried harder. “She doesn’t like it,” I complained, and put her down.

“Pick her up ANYWAY!” Joanna snapped.

Truth is, I don’t remember whether I did. All I remember is that I wanted to cry myself, to curl up in a ball, and to run away, all at once. It all seemed so unfair: I was doing the best I could, I thought, with this baby, this marriage, this life. And this little thing I did to try and help only made things worse.

In the long run, of course, things got better, in spite of all of us. The baby got older and stopped crying so much. Joanna and I got more sleep, and also learned how to be kinder to each other.

This has something to do with the book. The book I’m trying to write. The book I’m writing (“do or do not,” one online Star Wars fan pronounced, when a relative mentioned on her blog that someone she knew was trying to write a novel, “there is no try.”).

“The Book I’m Writing” sounds so…pretentious. Hubristic. BIG. When really I have no illusions that it’s a particularly big or ambitious or important project. Except to me, of course. Because I want so badly to succeed, to write a novel at long last, I’ve done everything I can to make it easy for myself: I’m writing a sequel to a short story I wrote a long time ago, so the characters and basic situation are already there. It’s set in such a way that I don’t have to do lots of real-life research, or a ton of world-building either. (There is some of each, but it’s fun and not onerous, at least not so far.) And maybe most importantly, someone more or less asked me to do it. So I know that when it’s done, there will be at least one person who actively wants to read it.

Even so, it is hard. I expected it to be hard, even with all the ways I tried to make it easy. But expecting and experiencing are two different things. And I’m barely started, maybe halfway through a first draft. I know there’s a lot more work, maybe years more work, ahead.

Right now, I’ve been actively working on it– outlining, and then drafting– for about two months. That makes this book about as old as Rose was in those horrible constant-crying weeks.

And, just as it was then, I have the miserable sinking feeling that this book simply *doesn’t like me*. Here I am, being good, writing every day, doing my short assignments and accepting that my first draft will be shitty, and it’s slipping all over the place: refusing to have a reasonable plot, and at the same time multiplying characters and subplots and complicated situations like some weird creeping amoeba-like thing.  The prose is boring and the characters aren’t well drawn and the setting isn’t even cool.

I try, I try to write anyway (do or do not, there is no try). I encourage myself, I talk out the plot, I ask friends and mentors for advice and pep talks, I drag out my old copy of Bird by Bird and read it again.

And then I have to write. The book in my head is crying and screaming and having a tantrum because no one– not even me– knows what it says, how it goes, how it ends, and the only way to find out is to write it. I pick it up, try to make it better–and it cries harder.

So, I’m remembering how Rose was, and how– if not that particular day, than some other day, and over and over– I picked her up anyway. Because that’s what babies need. I picked her up, and tried to figure out what was wrong, and even if I couldn’t, I just kept at it. I didn’t give up on her, and Joanna and I didn’t give up on each other.

And now that baby is, gloriously, ten years old, and things are so much easier and so much better that that dark fall day a decade ago seems like it must be from some other lifetime.

I can only have faith that it will be the same with this book.

— Amen.


  1. That was super awesome. You hear me, Anonymous Friend? SUPER AWESOME.

  2. I love this. Smart friends rock.

  3. Holy smartypants, yes.

    Thank you for sharing. This is a good kick in the pants.

  4. But what happens when your book is developmentally a surly teenager, but your real life child is only seven? Maybe I’ll just pretend my writing experience will help when B’s a teenager…

  5. Rachel, maybe it will; who knows?

    By Anonymous Friend on January 6th, 2011 at 9:40 pm
  6. I’m a mother of 2 childs,when they are a baybe,it really me crazy like you describe above

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