when the work isn’t working

We get so attached to the work: the big idea, the outline, the draft. As long as it’s flowing, we are terrific, brilliant, inspired. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

Then, things take a turn. As the easy and effortless surge of inspiration slows to an ooze, even a trickle, we teeter. Emotionally enmeshed with the work, our self-worth gets shaky. As our mood sours, so darkens our rose-colored view of the work—it’s a dun-ward spiral.

Ironically, this is the very moment in the process when we need to be self-possessed, impassive, even nonchalant. Fixing a writing problem is cognitive surgery—you don’t want to operate on yourself. Yet we try. Is it any wonder why so many authors turn to various forms of over-the-counter “anesthetic”?

That’s easy, says the voice in our heads, just don’t let the work not work and you’ll be fine. That’s what good writers do. No. There will always be a time when the work isn’t working. It’s not a bug in the system; it’s an essential phase in the process. You get to the thing you were supposed to make only by going through the ten thousand (or so) things you weren’t.

They say the difference between shame and guilt is “I’m bad” versus “I did a bad thing.” To heal from shame, you transmute it into guilt by establishing a healthy separation between you and your actions. To make good work, work a parallel transformation.

In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega does a bad thing. (Well, he does a few bad things, but I mean the thing in the car.) Sure, it’s a graphic scene, but let’s be honest, we’ve all had writing projects go south as abruptly, and with just as much blood on the upholstery.

Speckled with the results of Vincent’s error in judgement, Jules Winnfield could easily have thrown up his hands and quit. Instead, he stayed cool and called Marsellus Wallace. And Marsellus Wallace called in The Wolf.

What follows is a gem of a scene (though not safe for work because, d’uh, Pulp Fiction.) But it’s also a powerful creative metaphor, and looking at it now I think it’s no accident that Quentin Tarantino himself is in the foreground at the start—The Wolf is an obvious stand-in for the director, his creative avatar.

When things get tangled up in your writing and you’ve got your brains splattered all over the windows, call in The Wolf. Step away from the work, get yourself a cup of coffee, and then examine the situation dispassionately. Resist the urge to coddle yourself. That only feeds into the shame trap. You’ve got nothing to apologize for. You just have a mess to clean up.

If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you guys to act fast if you want to get out of this.

Let The Wolf handle it. Figure out what’s salvageable and salvage it, quickly. Then look at the rest with a stranger’s eyes. It may be a bit much to “murder your darlings” as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once suggested, but you can definitely put them on probation. I grab any questionable material and toss it in an outtakes folder before going back to work. Knowing it’s still there helps because I can always pull it back if I end up needing it.

I never do.

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