Writing Is Hard; Be a Duck

On learning how to ride the writing waves

There is a fantasy about the writing life. It involves sitting at a cafe or in a comfortable armchair or in a beautiful library with your laptop, or a notebook and fountain pen, and spilling out a story in one graceful swoop of inspired storytelling. It’s thrilling and rewarding and satisfying—and it’s also not going to happen very often.

Most writers reach a point pretty early on in their process when they realize, crap, this writing thing is hard. They encounter writers’ block, or their inner critic rises up like a demon that can’t be exorcised, or getting the right words on the page feels like swimming in the ocean against a rough tide that keeps threatening to drag you underwater. It can be utterly demoralizing to have a dream about writing and realize that sometimes, the dream is more like a nightmare.

This happens to writers at many stages. For example, currently it’s midway through NaNoWriMo; I bet plenty of writers are despairing of ever reaching their 50K words. Maybe you’re a writer working on your first novel with an editor, and you’re tearing your hair out after reading your editorial letter. Maybe you’re working on your second novel, or your third, or your nth novel, and you’re wondering: Does this ever get easier?

I’ve often heard experienced writers say that you never learn how to write books, plural. You learn how to write a book—the one you’re working on.

This is true in some ways, but I think it ignores a valuable and ultimately comforting fact. With each story or book you write, you learn about how hard it is, and you can learn how to recognize your own personal writers’ blocks. If you pay attention, you can learn that sometimes writing feels great, and sometimes it feels terrible. You can learn how to recognize when you need to take a break, and you can learn how to quiet your inner critic. 

In short, you can learn how to approach the writing of each different book with equanimity.

Letting Go

Webster’s defines equanimity as “the quality of remaining calm and undisturbed; evenness of mind or temper; composure.”

This is a perfectly fine definition, but this is not what I’m talking about. Equanimity is also a central concept in Buddhism, and that’s what I want to draw your attention to here.

The other day I was listening to a talk given by psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach on the subject of equanimity. (You can listen to it yourself here.) Brach describes equanimity as “the freedom or balance or openness we experience when we’re mindfully present. ...With equanimity there’s no opposing or controlling or demanding of reality.”

In other words, equanimity in this more Buddhist sense is about letting go of a desire to control reality. It’s about being open to what is happening here and now. What is happening might not be the most pleasant experience, but it’s happening, and facing that with equanimity means not fighting against reality.

Writing is hard. Those rough tides do surge from time to time. Fighting against them makes it harder.

In the same talk, Brach goes on to read from a poem called “The Little Duck” by Donald C. Babcock (first published in The New Yorker, 1947). Here’s the important part:

Now we are ready to look at something pretty special.
It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.
No, it isn’t a gull.
A gull always has a raucous touch about him.
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree,
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.
And neither do you.
But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you. He sits down in it.
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself a part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.

When I heard this poem I realized: This is what writing is for me. It’s resting in the Atlantic. It’s being the duck on the ocean, cuddling in the swells.

Process

I’ve been a professional writer (that is, getting paid to write) for about 16 years now. I’ve learned a few things about how to face those swells—those rough tides—with equanimity.

I’ve learned that writers’ block comes from not knowing where the story is going. In order to get around the block, I have to figure out where the story is going. Paradoxically, it often involves putting the work aside and doing something else for awhile, to allow my subconscious to process the problem. Trying to force it does not work.

I’ve learned that the harsh voice of the inner critic is often wrong and/or misleading. It also comes and goes; sometimes it’s silent for quite a while. If it starts to get really loud and insistent, that probably indicates (yet again) that I need to take a break from the work and let the inner critic settle down. 

I’ve also learned how to ignore the inner critic when I’m writing new stuff (a first draft, or a new version of a scene or a chapter), because it is useless at that point. This is just plain fact. It is useless to criticize something that doesn’t exist. Write the draft first, and then it can be analyzed.

I’ve learned that some writing days are easier than others. This is why in early drafts I focus on an objective goal; for example, I set a goal to write 1000 words a day, or to write for two hours. They don’t have to be the perfect words; that’s what revision is for. Once I meet my goal, I can stop. 

When it comes to revision, my goals are more complex. I need to make a scene more nuanced, or add layers to a character’s dialogue. This can be excruciating sometimes, because these goals are less objective. That’s when I remind myself of other lessons I’ve learned: Writing can be fun or boring, fast or slow. It can feel like pulling teeth, or it can feel like sliding downhill on the best waterslide ever. Some days feel solid, like I’m making real progress. Other days feel like treading water. All of this is normal, and all of this is part of the process.

Every one of those writing days, good and bad, adds up to the final goal, which may be a short story or a novel or even, sometimes, an essay like this one.

Boundless

Here’s a metaphorical tangent. 

The story is the ocean beneath you. It is affected by weather patterns on the other side of the world, and you can’t always know when a storm is going to come. You can’t see to the bottom of the ocean from your vantage point on top of the waves, and though you can see the horizon, you can’t see the end of the ocean because there is no end; it circles back upon itself and becomes another ocean.

As a writer, I am beginning to understand the vastness of stories. More accurately, the vastness of my Story. Every writer has a Story that they tell, often over and over again in different forms. It’s taken me awhile to understand what mine is, but it has become increasingly clear in the last few years. 

I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I’m still coming to understand it myself, but also, I believe that one’s Story is personal and should be kept close and safe. It’s not an idea like a light bulb, but a continuum of ideas. It’s not specific enough to be stated in a sentence; it’s an ever-shifting questioning. 

It’s an ocean. (Insert duck.)

Float

Back to reality now. The story is the ocean beneath you, but what that means is very simple: Your job as the writer is to learn how to ride the ocean. Yes, you have to be the duck.

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? A tiny duck on the ocean! And that’s okay because writing, in many ways, is ridiculous. We are telling stories here, not curing cancer, and I say that as a person who truly believes in the power of storytelling. I’m not belittling the meaning of fiction or art, but I think sometimes we are tempted to give storytelling too much power, and that makes it scary, and that leads to anxiety, and then we can’t write and we feel like losers.

There’s no need for that. You’re a duck on the ocean. The duck is going to survive because it can float on the waves, and so can you. Sometimes those waves are big and scary; sometimes they’re small and soothing. You can learn how to ride all of them.


Thank you for reading my newsletter! If you have questions about the writing process, you’re welcome to reply to this newsletter and ask me. I might answer your question in a future issue. And stay tuned, because I’m starting to put together ideas for what Lo & Behold will be focused on in the new year. I’m very excited to share it with you!


Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.

Lo & Behold is Malinda Lo's biweekly newsletter about writing, publishing, and other interesting things. If you enjoyed this issue, please consider subscribing:

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