In one of the essays in The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes:
There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
The mind is an irrational thing. It operates in its own conditioned, instinctive manner, so we can fight and flee our way through life.
I am a slow, ponderous writer. I often find myself caught without a mosquito net, with those whiny voices in my ear, drowning out any possible coherent thoughts. I stop. I listen. The work freezes. I set it aside. Sometimes I can go back and wrest some momentum out of some of those pieces. But sometime, sometimes, they just stay where they are. Inert. Dead.
But fiction is not life. Life plays out in far messier ways. Life demands that I wake up and pay attention.
When terrible things happen in the world I find myself questioning what I do for a living. Writers are not “essential personnel,” are they? Here we are now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, and I’m dismayed at my own self-indulgence. We live in a world where a 19-year-old ends up bloodied in a boat in someone’s back yard, after having dropped off a bomb intended to kill and maim crowds of people. Obsessing over process seems irrelevant. I’m jolted out of any residual state of feeling sorry for myself.
Still, the thing we call process will take its toll again, I know. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about this in 1920, in her essay, How Flint and Fire Started and Grew.
…on taking up the legible typed copy and beginning to glance rapidly over it, I felt fall over me the black shadow of that intolerable reaction which is enough to make any author abjure his calling for ever. By the time I had reached the end, the full misery was there, the heart-sick, helpless consciousness of failure. What! I had had the presumption to try to translate into words, and make others feel a thrill of sacred living human feeling, that should not be touched save by worthy hands. And what had I produced? A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it….
From the subconscious depths of long experience came up the cynical, slightly contemptuous consolation, “You know this never lasts. You always throw this same fit, and get over it.”
So, suffering from really acute humiliation and unhappiness, I went out hastily to weed a flower-bed.
And sure enough, the next morning, after a long night’s sleep, I felt quite rested, calm, and blessedly matter-of-fact. “Flint and Fire” seemed already very far away and vague, and the question of whether it was good or bad, not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.
So there. Momentum is everything. The only way is to keep on keeping on. I’m swatting at those whiny mosquito voices and paying attention to the only work I know how to do.