I'm sitting in a lawn chair in my back yard, basking in a patch of spring sunshine, a good book in hand and a hot cup of coffee at my side. I hear a soft, droning sound in the air above me. I look up from my book to see a white biplane moving slowly across a clear blue sky. Who is on that plane? Where are they coming from, or going to? My mind starts spinning, and before long I toss down the book, grab my cup of Joe and head for my writing desk.
I've just had what Whitman called the "Genesis moment": that mad burst of inspiration that begins the writing of a new story-in this case, the sight and sound of that airplane in the sky. I write very quickly, getting it all down in a thrilling rush. I've written enough stories to know what's happening. This is the "honeymoon phase," and it lasts only as long as it takes me to write that first, messy draft. For now, anything seems possible in the story. There's great fun in kicking over a bucket of mop water and seeing where the spill takes you.
But every mess must eventually be cleaned up, and thus begins the process of revision. This is where the hard work begins. For me, it's usually a long, slow process of taking things out and putting them back in, of layering here and there, carefully appointing each corner of the room, as it were. Invariably, at some point during this stage I reach a point of maximum frustration because, in some serious and vital way, the story just isn't working. This usually centers around an unresolved major issue, some problem that, I gradually realize, absolutely must be solved if this story is ever going to work. I try this, I try that. I try this again. Nothing works. I seem to have hit a dead end.
This is when I freak out. I worry that I have another brilliant stillborn on my hands, that I've failed. I thump and crash around for a while. I've been known to throw things at the wall. Eventually, I close up the shop and go for a run, or mow my lawn. I'll return to the story tomorrow.
But the next day is worse. The problem seems bigger, harder, farther-reaching. Sometimes I get lucky and solve this problem quickly, but often this period of unease lasts several days, even weeks. It lasts until one of two predictable things happens: either I abandon the story, or I solve the problem. The former leaves me feeling miserable, while the latter makes me happy, and so I stubbornly stick to the task at hand and solve the problem. By then I'm feeling good again because the piece is finally firing on all cylinders. I think it might be the best story I've ever written. I think I actually know what I'm doing. I crack open a beer, I call a friend, my wife and I go out to dinner to celebrate. I've just finished a new story!
I used to fear the problems that arose during that long, drawn-out middle stage of revising a story. I thought it meant I wasn't doing it right, that I was somehow a fraud or a charlatan, or that the muses didn't like me. I used to think that if I ever got better as a writer-that is, published a bunch of stories, or even a book!-I would outgrow that kind of thing. Real writers don't struggle so hard.
Now, glancing over the table of contents of my recently-completed third book, I can only smile. I was dead wrong! Every one of my new stories had its moment of maximum panic; every one of them nearly failed. My desperate moments have never gone away, and part of me hopes they never do, because they've become rites of passage-a sign that the story is, in fact, heading in the right direction.
Every good story has its Gordian knot-and, like Alexander, I usually resort to cutting what cannot be untangled. I'll do whatever it takes, ruthlessly gutting what isn't working, inventing new scenes, new characters, a new beginning or ending. I once threw out twenty-four pages from a "completed" twenty-five page story-this, after weeks of work-and started over with a new page two; later, when I'd reshaped that story until I only had one bit of necessary exposition left to complete, I wrote over a dozen variations on a single scene, laboring for days to get that final page right. When I finally did, I knew I'd written one of my best stories. But what a hassle!
I've learned to view these moments of head-banging frustration as prime opportunities. I have a tendency to tolerate problems in a draft for a long time; my artistic problems, like tea, need to steep. When that problem is finally bad enough-when I can finally admit that something is really, really wrong and that my little nips and tucks aren't working, that in fact the whole thing just stinks-I'll fix it, and I usually end up with strong stuff. But it requires patience, dedication, and the discipline to stick with it. It requires stubborn tenacity. Most of all, it requires faith: a faith in the process of writing itself.
This faith is perhaps the chief thing a writer needs. Now, when I say you need faith, I don't mean that wistful sort of "leave it to a higher power" or "it's out of my hands" sort of thing. That's just wishful thinking, a prayer that someone else will sort it all out. No, the faith I'm talking about is actually a kind of active commitment to the practice of writing itself. It's a willingness to keep working with what Buddhists call Right Effort: to be mindful and attentive, to restrain from distraction and to maintain what we might call a wholesome artistic state. This means being fully engaged and invested in the moment-by-moment act of writing. I never solved any major problems in writing by making a modest effort or "phoning it in." The muse doesn't just show up and ladle out her magic juice. She must be hunted, wrestled down to the ground, and forced to deliver.
The story that began on that afternoon with the biplane is called "Barnstorming." It's in my first book, Field Observations. I began drafting it in early 1998. I worked intensely on it for several weeks before setting it aside for over a year. It went through ten substantial rewrites. I find that my best stories often require this geologic time frame: several significant rewrites, often done in quick, volcanic succession, followed by a lengthy dormant period. I've come to expect and treasure the dormant period, too. When I return to the draft many weeks or months later, I have fresh eyes. I'm less attached to whatever I'd been clinging to in the previous rounds. The story presents itself as having many possibilities, though often there is one choice that immediately seems best and, eventually, comes to feel inevitable.
I know there are writers who are faster, more prolific, more efficient-hell, they're probably just smarter than me. But that's okay. Writing is not a competitive sport. As we all know, it's just you and the blank page for as long as you can stand it. The blank page isn't going anywhere, so you'd better get to work. And when you do, trust in the process of writing itself, because if you sincerely invest yourself in that process, if you are mindful and attentive and make that right effort from moment to moment-including knowing when to set it aside and work on other things-then it's probably going to work out, eventually. You just need a little faith.
Rob Davidson is the author of The Farther Shore: Stories (Bear Star Press, 2012), The Master and the Dean: The Literary Criticism of Henry James and William Dean Howells (Missouri, 2005), and Field Observations: Stories (Missouri, 2001). Davidson teaches creative writing and American literature at California State University, Chico.
Who's the most inspirational character you've recently come across in literary fiction or nonfiction, and why? Send your answer in one or two sentences to Beth Spencer at Bear Star Press and you'll be eligable to win one of five free copies of The Farther Shore. Send your entry, by April 1, with the subject line "Book Giveaway" to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of your picks will also be posted on my Facebook page.