Image: In the Chasm of Despair (crop), Gavster CC 0 via pixabay.com. Happy Hallowe’en?
Warning: it’s not clear whether I’m using metaphor here, or whether metaphor, having taken full control, is using me.
In nearly every writing project I take on – no matter whether it’s an 800-word blog post or an 80,000-word book – there’s a point where I feel like what I’ve produced so far is horrible, that I can’t see how to fix it, and that I’ll probably never find my way to a worthwhile end. I sit in front of the screen cursing, if I can summon the energy to curse; if I can’t, I just stare at the page with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I call this point in my writing process the Chasm of Despair. As a writer I stumble through a landscape that’s desolate and parched, razor-sharp shards of lava tearing at my boots, and seeing in the distance nothing but unclimbably steep slopes. Out of the corner of my eye, perched on a dessicated cactus, I see a vulture, and it’s surely eyeing me with anticipation. Every step – every word I set down – is painful, and I’ve lost hope of making it out of the Chasm to a finished manuscript I’ll be proud of. Maybe you’ve been in a writing Chasm of your own.
Early in my career, when I entered the Chasm of Despair, I’d stop writing. Why wouldn’t I? It felt awful to sit there and write, when I could feel my stomach sinking and I could see the vulture salivating*. The only nice thing about the Chasm of Despair in writing is that you can leave it at any time – you only need to stand up and step away from the screen. So I’d take a break and do something else – something less painful – with the intent of coming back to my writing when I was in a better mood, or when I’d figured out what was wrong and what to write next, or when I’d had some other kind of magical intervention from the writing fairies. But guess what? Usually, when I came back to the writing, I found myself on the same desolate landscape, back in the same spot in the same Chasm. I’ve since realized: I was doing things exactly wrong. You can’t cross the Chasm by leaving it.
Don’t ever stop writing in the Chasm of Despair. There’s only one way out of the Chasm, and that’s to write your way out. That will be difficult, to be sure: it’s uphill in all directions (that’s what makes it a Chasm). But so what? Writing is difficult, because (like me) you’re almost certainly not a natural-born writing genius. You still need to do it, because (like me) as a scientist you’re a professional writer. Write the next sentence, even if it seems awful. (You can fix awful later; you can’t fix a blank page.) Then write the next one**. The good news is: that’s the way out.
When should you stop writing? Not at the bottom of the Chasm; but once you’re part way up the other side and the slope has eased a little. In fact, the very best place to stop is when the ground levels out – no matter how temporarily – so that the next step looks easy. It’s tempting to take the easy step right away, but I’ve learned not to. Instead, I leave it for my next writing session. If I’ve finished a hard paragraph – a bottom-of-the-Chasm-y paragraph – I’ll write just the first sentence of the next one, and stop myself while I still know what’s coming next. You see, if I can start tomorrow’s writing session with something easy, it generates a bit of momentum that can carry me through the next harder bit. There’s usually another harder bit to come, of course; if not another fullblown Chasm of Despair, then at least a Gully of Mild Unease.
There’s more good news to be had about the Chasm, too. Not only can you write your way out of it, but nearly all the time, once you have written your way out of it, the perspective from higher ground will let you see your draft differently. The passage that looked like a parched and lifeless hellscape may, after a bit of a rest and viewed from a bit of distance, reveal itself as arable ground. Writing your way out of the Chasm won’t get you a perfect draft, of course; but it will get you something you can fix. Even better: once you’ve written your way out of a bunch of Chasms, you’ll learn an out-of-body trick: while still on the floor of the Chasm you’ll be able to picture the draft, completed and seen from that higher-ground perspective. You’ll know that, once you finish, it will look better than you can possibly imagine from the bottom of the Chasm.
I know what to do now, as a writer, when I feel my stomach sinking. I keep writing, putting one foot in front of the other; and that way, I’ve written my way out of many a Chasm. It’s still hard, of course – just like many other parts of my job. I do it anyway, because that’s what professionals do. And there’s a reward waiting at the other end. I wish I could say I enjoy writing; I often don’t. But I definitely enjoy having written.
© Stephen Heard October 29, 2018
UPDATE: here’s a related, and complementary, perspective from Rachael Cayley on Explorations of Style.
*^Do vultures salivate? I don’t know, and (uncharactistically) I abandoned a Google search after ten fruitless minutes. But as long as we’re on the topic of vultures, can I interest you in a post I wrote about them once? I thought it was funny as all get-out. Sooner or later I’ll find somebody else who thinks so too.
**^It doesn’t have to be the literally next sentence – when you’re stuck, there’s often merit in backing up a little and rewriting the previous sentence, or moving for a little while to another section of the paper, or even to “freewriting”. I discuss these and other strategies for breaking writer’s block in Chapter 6 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.