Writer Pitfalls: When You’re Too Ambishish to Fishish

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The hardest part about writing a novel is to fishish. 

– Ernest Hemmingway

I began this novel when our oldest daughter was 1. I’m still not done. In a month, she’s headed to high-school. 

When she was done eating, she’d wave her hands and say, “Fishished!” She wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t matter. She had important things to do. And only a monster could say no to that face.

I wish I could tell God I’m fishished with the book today. I’ve got way too much on my plate and I can’t see how I’ll ever get to it.

Sometimes, maybe many times, I have this automatic response: I don’t want to get all burdened with it again today.

And then of course, immediately comes the guilt.

If I don’t show up to write, if I avoid it and let other more immediately gratifying things take its place, aren’t I abandoning my readers? What else would you call that? Sometimes, most times, I don’t realize that’s what I’m doing. I simply don’t want to get pulled into the vortex of unsolvable problems again, this twisted, complex puzzle of thinking through all my characters’ struggles and concerns, and how to form them into a cohesive, engaging story.

So much about writing is so hard. The truth about the characters and their best way forward is hidden beneath so much good but common stuff. Choosing what to share is hard—what even is the criteria?—and also how to keep it all straight and keep from getting frustrated with the paltry progress. We’re all on our own in figuring this out and deciding what’s most important (and most interesting) to share. It’s a chore just to keep looking, keep showing up day after day.

Margaret Atwood said, “a word after a word after a word is power.” And Neil Gaiman said, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” I like best what Steinbeck said, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” He wrote that to himself in his own writing journal for The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win a Pulitzer, of course.

I learned this lesson at the kitchen table in junior high when I had 8 classes and homework in each one. My mom moved the stack of books off to where I couldn’t see them, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about all I hadn’t done yet.

That was how I finished.

We’ll never know what we could have found if we’d only kept going. New revelations always come. We know this but we get overwhelmed. The solutions will come, and they’ll come in the familiar but also from the wholly new as well. A completely different bush will flower in the wilderness. But we won’t see it until we’ve worked to get right up next to it.

We’ve got to just focus on what we can do in a day or we’ll never find the way out. The scope of the vision and the work yet to do is always too overwhelming.

And Hemmingway could have been a bit more encouraging. Rick Riordian seems to have realized this when he said, “the best part about writing a book is finishing it.” That, I can believe. I just don’t know how I’ll finish yet.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to contain everything—where would I put it anyway? What’s truer than all the books that say “you’re already enough” is, what we already have is enough to get what else we need. We’ve got to know the truth, have faith, that all we need is stamina, the great, irreplaceable persistence—and what we don’t have yet, we will get it when we need it. Or we don’t need it.

Maybe the problem is related to perfectionism. Perfection is a mirage I’ll keep falling for until I accept I’m going to end up with a book that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t live up to all my hopes and dreams. It will be less than that and different than I expected, but that will be good enough regardless of what I or anyone else wanted. I’ve got to release expectations and appease myself with achieving merely a caricature of reality.

A book is always less than real life, and that’s a big part of its appeal and value: its very limitations. Refinement means reduction.

 Can I accept that and give up trying to fit every idea in just because I like it?

Maybe every writer has to work to the point of failing to manage all they’ve dreamed in order to know which elements / storyline / theme is the one absolute necessity. Maybe at the very end of our abilities is the balance between what’s new and what’s conventional. Accepting limitation is part of the journey, like the end of a favorite story of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Let go the bright dream of perfection. Happiness and your very survival will demand it. You can’t have everything. Some won’t get pinned down this time or maybe ever. It’ll get away from you; that’s okay. Let it go. Decide to be okay never gaining what you hoped and maybe you’ll finally learn to receive something better.

And who knows? It could be that’s the only way a writer ever knows they’re fishished.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

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11 thoughts on “Writer Pitfalls: When You’re Too Ambishish to Fishish”

  1. Oh. My. Gosh. Did you tap into my brain all the way here in Maui? I was just talking to God about all of this on my walk this morning. Except, He went further with me – reminding me that my perfectionism means I’m making it about my efforts and not His. UGH. Praying we both get freedom and breakthrough from this!

    1. I tapped your phones, actually. :) The voice in your head is not God, it’s me!

      I’m sorry–don’t listen to me. Freedom and permission to suck has been such a powerful truth to possess. And I’m so glad you can benefit from what he’s teaching me.

      Always with you in the journey and so grateful for it! – M

  2. Keep it alive in your head, cultivate the characters as adjuncts to soul, and give them working time, izat the drill?
    That, plus taking time to play cat in the hat with the creature who deigns to ensconce itself at your place, yes?

    1. That’s well said, Kathleen! Look forward to hearing more of what God’s been saying to you in your writing…
      -M

  3. This is very similar to the conversations I’ve been having with myself and other writer friends this past week. I want to put aside my overambitious expectations I’ve set for the book I’m writing and be willing to just finish.

  4. In a season where all I can do is focus on what I can do in a day. One day. At a time. Some days are more productive than others. But I still show up.

    1. Yes, this. Let the record show you showed up for your part of the deal today. That’s all that’s required.

  5. “So much about writing is so hard.” You said a lot of good, good things in this post, Mick, but that sentence there? That was the good-est. This is why when I tell someone I’m an author and they say, “Oh, yeah. I want to write a book someday

    1. Well, nothing like posting a comment before you’re finished! Talk about irony! So … When I tell someone I’m an author and they say, “Oh, yeah, I want to write a book someday, ” and I grit my teeth and smile, all the while thinking, “Let me know how that works out for you.” Starting a manuscript is hard. Finishing is hard — and letting go of perfectionism in between the two is hard, hard, hard. And sometimes, yes, we’re on our own — but then there are the times we have to remember we have writing buddies to talk things out with. And mentors. And even things like your blog posts that encourage us and help us move forward and try again.
      Thanks, Mick, for all you do to motivate writers to write. To finish.

    2. Ah, so true. We have friends who get it! You are one of those for me, Beth. Thank you for all your encouragement. Honored and humbled by you. – M

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