the gel

There’s a point at which everything comes together. Always. Persevering to that point is the central challenge of being a writer.

Throughout the week, I assemble scraps of ideas for this newsletter. By Thursday or Friday, thematic connections have formed, seemingly of their own accord. When it’s time to work, I realize I have something to say, and the newsletter gets written without much additional fuss.

I expect it to happen. And so it happens.

Book proposals work this way, too. Eventually. For months, material accretes in a lopsided, staggered, and intensely frustrating manner. Competitive titles to be analyzed here. Skeleton outline to be expanded there. As tangents form with each revision, it can sometimes feel like we’re drifting away from completion and into realms of greater complexity. Despite all the hours I spend wrangling meaning from chaos with my client, the whole document remains stubbornly Under Construction like a 1990s homepage.

Then, a morning arrives that feels different, though I can’t say why at first. Wearily, I scroll through the well-worn Word document, version 30 or 40 by this point, accepting changes and processing comments, and suddenly I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. One paragraph snaps into another like a magnet. A fresh transition here, a revised segue there, a passage that had stubbornly refused to coalesce slips into coherence with a single added adjective. Within a few hours, I’ve completed the first full draft. Ten fingers, ten toes—it looks healthy!

This abrupt phase transition from gas to solid always comes as a surprise. The hump that comes prior, I know to expect. At the beginning of the proposal process, I warn clients that we’ll soon reach a plateau with plenty of back-and-forth but little to show for it. (They’re still annoyed when it happens.) But it’s the precipitous drop at the end of that plateau that inevitably catches me off-guard.

If you play Sudoku, think of that long, messy, maddening period in the middle. All that white space to fill, so few clues. With effort, though, you reach a turning point. The final squares start filling at an incredibly satisfying pace and, before you know it, the puzzle is complete. You’re elated, and a bit deflated. Sure, it’s a relief to finally finish. But however frustrating the process was, you’re now left with a product. The journey is at an end.

I know I can finish my newsletters and my book proposals and my ghostwritten manuscripts and so I do. With my own creative projects, however, I forget. Or maybe I never learned in the first place. This ugly but necessary interlude in the trajectory of any project is transparently a dead end when it comes to my own creative impulses. As soon as I’m past the first few turns, as soon as I start losing myself in the labyrinth from which we draw all of our inspiration, I panic, certain I’ll never find my way out again. Rather than sink more time and effort into a hopeless fight, I nuke the whole thing. From orbit. After all, it’s the only way to be sure.

Jerry Seinfeld asks, is this anything? When it comes to my own work, there’s no one to answer that question but me. And I’m a terrible judge. This is why I enjoy exploding songs and otherwise observing artists struggle through this same uncertainty—and persevere. I need all the encouragement I can get.

How do you keep the faith? Intellectually, I’m certain every project will gel eventually. The end result may not be great, but whatever it is you’re making, it can be made sound. It’s simply a matter of craft and time.

Lost in the labyrinth, what helps me most is a map. I can’t let myself get caught up with formal experimentation. I need to begin with a given structure. A typical half-hour TV show has three acts, an A story and a B story. A typical pop song has an intro, a verse, a chorus, a bridge. I can complete book proposals because I start with the same template every time: overview, about the author, the usual.

For some reason, however, I resist maps. Maybe because I’m too proud to follow another’s lead. Maybe because I don’t like the idea of knowing where I’m going. But if my professional work indicates anything, it’s that I’m a plotter, not a pantser, whether I’m writing fiction or not. For me, boundaries around creative chaos are what make it safe enough to explore.

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