on reading your own writing

Just before bed last night I was looking at what wordpress calls “the dashboard”–your basic blog control panel–when I saw that someone had arrived here yesterday by Google search. The dashboard shows daily “referrers”–links that bring people here–and which pages visitors read each day. For this blog, most people come from Facebook or an e-mail subscription. But for the first time, someone had come because they’d searched for me. Query: “mandy len” Vancouver.

When your online presence is as small and new as mine is, having someone intentionally seek you out sends an electric signal straight to your ego. And having someone stick around and read every post? It’s totally gratifying. Because what writer doesn’t want to be read?

But then it dawned on me that whoever searched for me wasn’t looking for the blog itself. If they know my name and know about this blog, they would’ve just typed in the web address. Or they would’ve searched for “mandy len” “love stories”, not “mandy len” Vancouver. So it was probably someone who had my e-mail address and guessed that Len was my last name, someone who doesn’t really know me. And since I’ve only given my e-mail address to one person in the past few weeks, I think I know who Googled. This realization sent another, more complex signal to my ego which can be translated as a series of questions: What would someone who doesn’t really know me think of me based on what I’ve written here? And would someone who stumbled across this blog want to read the book I’m trying to write? Would I want to read the book I’m writing?

I looked back over what I’ve written and an uncomfortable thought came to me: this blog would probably not motivate me to read my own book. I even suspected that I might sometimes be annoyed by its writer. When she is rushed, she lapses into what Orwell would call “ready-made phrases,” as if she cannot be bothered “to hunt about” for the best combination of words. She is careless and imprecise in a way I often caution my own students against. On a bad day, she and her rhetorical questions might easily be written off as a member of the “Carrie Bradshaw” genre.

I originally pitched the idea of a blog to myself as a workspace, a place to play with ideas, as something that would necessarily be rough and unpolished. I was okay with that. But sometimes reading your own writing is like listening to your voice on the answering machine. Its cadences are familiar, but the tone is warped. You hear as with someone else’s ears, and you become a stranger to yourself. When I was writing with no audience other than my writer’s group, I could be sloppy. I could let things simmer. Or I could polish feverishly. My writers group expected things to be messy, and all anyone else would ever see would be the clean, shining gem that might appear one day in print.

On the first day of my first writing workshop with Richard McCann–the reader I still sometimes write to–he asked us to think about what kinds of risks we were willing to take that semester. At the time, because it was a creative nonfiction workshop, I thought he was asking us if we were willing to be confessional, to put our lurid histories on the page. But after a few weeks, I began to understand that he wanted us to open ourselves to a kind of rigorous honesty. We did not need to tell the readers our secrets, but rather to avoid easy conclusions, to push beyond the surface of things, to be unwilling to accept the world as it appears. Or maybe this is what I began to want for myself in my own writing. The risk in attempting such honesty is not that the reader might judge you, but that you might fail. You might find yourself with nothing but an unwieldy pile of sentences, through which you can barely discern that thing you once sat out to say.

This process of rereading reminds me of a quotation I’d read recently from Richard Bausch:

Here is how I mean it when I say that the doubt you feel is your talent: the whole feeling stems from having the ear in the first place to be able to tell when it isn’t singing as you want it to; it comes from hearing how far it is from the way you hope to make it sound. You can hear the difference because you have the talent, the ear. And, because the piece takes its slow sweet hard time getting right, you feel that fact as evidence that you can’t do it or won’t be able to do it; you look at the work of others, who also did it seventy-five times to get it right, and you can’t escape the sense that their smooth elegant lines are how it arrived the first time for them–whole cloth, as printed. So you turn that on yourself and start feeling it won’t ever be good enough, and the doubt sweeps in. Just do the day’s work. A little at a time. And then take yourself elsewhere in your life until the next day’s work.

Just do the day’s work. It’s a nice idea that doubt is talent, that what kept me up last night was just my talent racing around my brain. The messy, uneven stuff is valuable because I can see its messiness, because I know what I want it to be, and what it has not yet become.

I have to believe that what I’m writing about matters somehow, if only because I am unprepared to face the existential questions that will cloud over my daily life if I let go of that belief. It has become cliche to say “trust the process,” but I have to trust this process despite its messiness, just as I have been trying to trust in the possibility of being in love again one day. Because I have only tried to write one book, because I have only ever loved one person, this trust is not borne of experience or even of instinct, but out of what makes today work.

For months I’ve been struggling with verb tense. To make it simple, the problem is that when we tell stories we often speak in the present tense even when what we’re describing happened in the distant past. (“So my dad says to my grandfather, ‘Can we go for a drive?'”) And I wanted to capture the intimacy and subjectivity of that kind of personal narrative in my writing. The problem is that writing everything in the present tense creates some significant time confusion. Conversely, writing in the past tense gave an unintended weight to my sentences, a kind of permanence that I wanted to avoid. The scenes seemed so fixed, like I was transcribing a film rather than contemplating a memory. I couldn’t find the right balance. But my 2:00 a.m. crisis of confidence somehow helped unlock the verb tense dilemma. I need some weight to my writing. I don’t want my sentences to be flimsy and insubstantial. And so now I begin a big experiment in the past tense. But I’m excited about it. And I am grateful for that moment of doubt. And for my new reader. I hope you found something, however small, that caught your interest. I hope you don’t mind messy.

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2 thoughts on “on reading your own writing

  1. Mandy! I love this post. Here’s one for your ego: I, for one, wish these posts were a book that I could curl up in bed with. The computer screen glow tires my eyes and so I am excited for when this playspace of yours turns into your published work. Thank you for your honesty!

  2. That’s funny, because I can make a direct parallel with another kind of writing, scientific writing. Especially about fundamental sciences, there is always an improvement to be done. And often you know that you could do it. But at some point you have to say stop! Now I will write a paper with what I have. I have enough. And your paper is not gonna be perfect…
    Then comes the honesty about yourself. Without confident about your work, there is no point in doing it. Still, also have to be critical, to actually be able to improve what you have done. The fine blur curvy line comes confidence transform into arrogance or when the critic is too hard…
    And I’ll stop here because I have no idea about the answer!

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