I have been struggling with a short story for the past six months. 6,000 words continually elude me — well, not the words, the characters. Just when I think I’ve figured them out, I go to sleep, and wake up with a whole new realization.
Now let me clarify: I haven’t just been working on this story for six months. I’ve had other stories come and go, other projects creep up and wash away — but this story just refuses to be finished.
I long ago met the am-I-crazies, and I’ve said howdy-doody to the wouldn’t-it-be-better-if-you-just-gave-up-on-this-ones several times. But the thing is — I LOVE this story. Absolutely 100% love it. And I love the characters, however confusing they may be.
This weird, wicked, twisted love triangle of sorts had been frustrating me entirely until just recently. A few weeks ago, I went home to Austin, TX to hear Robin Black speak on her book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, a collection of short stories I still to this day salivate over even though I read them last October.
Robin’s stories may qualify as longer than usual for short stories, but the prose is still as tight and succinct as can be. Every word carries weight and leaves me reeling. Naturally, I want to be just like her. And naturally, this is why my own story has eluded me for so long. I am well aware of the it-isn’t-perfect-yets.
Robin read an excerpt of one of her stories and then went on to answer questions. I let a few people go first because I’m always too terrified to start off any Q and As. But I knew what I was going to ask before we even started. Finally, I raised my hand.
“It took you eight years to write these eight stories. What’s that like?” How do you survive? is what I meant. How do you not want to pull your hair out of your head every time you sit down at the computer?
She gave me a great answer. “When I was first starting out, I used to produce stories all the time. They would just appear, one right after the other. Now that I’ve gone to school and learned the craft, these things take much more time because every decision is a much more conscious decision.”
And that about sums it up. Right there.
I started writing a long time ago. Stories have come and gone. I’m nowhere near learned. I’ve never taken any creative writing courses. But after hearing her answer, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the right track with this story.
So far, I’ve written four drafts. Now I’m on draft five, and I’m rewriting the entire thing from scratch. The difference is that I’ve gotten to know my characters and their story so very well, that I do believe this will be the last draft — even though it’s an entirely new draft.
For six months, I’ve struggled with these characters in my mind, but my struggles are now clearly defined, and more importantly, they’re validated. I’ve been fighting for the right reasons, so to speak.
There’s a fine line between writing consciously and writing perfectly — and I’m in a constant battle to find where that line lies. It’s thin, like a string, and most of the time, I’m certain that I’m straddling it.
But here’s how I know I’m not falling into the perfectionist trap:
Every day I move forward in my drafts.
It may be slow work. It may be tedious. But every day, I progress just a little bit. I’m not on draft one — I’m on draft five. And I’m not confused anymore, I’m informed.
Perfectionism tends to take the shapes of drafts that never end, words written and then erased over and over, and time spent with characters that leave you perpetually confused and frustrated. Confusion and frustration aren’t bad — but after hours spent with your characters, they should never leave you completely in the dark.
I’m confident I’m staying away from the perfectionist trap. I’m really trying. And miraculously, I’ve kept all my hair on my head. I’ve only pulled out a little. At the reading, I noticed Robin didn’t quite answer my internal question of survival — but that’s because we each have our own methods.
My method? I focus on the ending, the feeling that I will be done, and I will have done a great job. I focus on the joy of daily discovery, on writing something that gives me just a little chill.
And when I’m sitting in bed waiting to go to sleep, I read something perfect, and dream.
Lisa Kilian is the author of the blog, What Not To Do as a Writer. Her essays on writing have appeared at Beyond the Margins, Fear of Writing, and Best Damn Creative Writing blog, among others. She plans on drinking lots of expensive champagne when she finishes her 6,000 word story.