Muse Monday: The Monster at the End of this Book

Once again I’m getting this up later than I wanted to — not for any legitimate reason aside from the fact that I didn’t get to it until now — so in terms of Scary Things In Writing, what I’m most immediately facing is the terror of flunking at self-imposed deadlines. But something else scary that I’ve been thinking about more generally lately — as I’ve been flailing around filled with an excess of emotion and a severe shortage of proper and appropriate words — is the terror that comes when a really fantastic idea arrives.

Well, what’s the problem? Ideas are great. Fantastic ideas — even better. Why the hell would that be scary?

Because of the thing that I think most writers deal with, either at isolated points or pretty much constantly, which is the fear — nay, the certainty — that you’re not going to get it all. You’re not going to get it intact, or right. Wherever it’s coming from, however it’s coming through, you’re not going to be able to get it all down in as fabulous a form as it appears in your mind. It’s going to come out wrong somehow. Some pieces are going to be lost in translation. Maybe a lot of it will be. Maybe the entire thing.

This is a terror with which I’m intimately familiar, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time ruminating on it, and I’ve arrived at two primary positions concerning it.

First: It’s probably at least partly an accurate impression of what’s really going in in your brain. You have an idea, the idea is blinding and crystalline and perfect and wonderful and you’re filled with ecstasy as you contemplate it. And then, honestly, you just aren’t a good enough writer to get it all down. It doesn’t mean you aren’t still a very good writer; just that you may not always be equal to your ideas. And hey — cry harder. So you have ideas that are just that good. Yes, it’s no fun and it’s a severe blow to your ego realizing that you just can’t get all of it the way it comes to you. Deal with it. We should all be lucky enough to have such problems.

But second — and I think this might actually be true a higher percentage of the time — the idea you have in that first ecstatic flush may not actually be as great as you think it is. Or, you may just not really understand what is great about it.

Here’s the thing: if you’re an even halfway competent writer, you should be able to do a decent enough job with a good idea. Maybe not perfect, but still decent. What the actual process of writing does, one of the things it’s really supremely good for, is separating the conceptual wheat from the conceptual chaff; once you have to actually sit down and work out all the little fiddly bits of plot and character, when you discover the brilliance of your idea fading and all of these problems popping up where sparkles and rainbows used to be, maybe that’s just because you’re seeing your idea as it really is for the first time.

You meet someone. They’re amazing. You fall utterly in love and you move in together and/or get married. And then you’re waking up every day next to this person, and sooner or later the magical glow starts to get a little green around the edges. And at that point, one of two things happens: either you decide that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, or you have to do the tough, everyday work of actually loving this person. Of discovering what it is about them that you really love, once you really start seeing them.

Writing is like love. There’s the fluffy and sentimental and profoundly transient stuff early on — and then there’s what you actually do. The action. The process. The getting-up-every-day-and-working-through-it business. Both are good, in their way. Unfortunately, only one of them is likely to produce anything lasting.

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