I am a recovering control freak. (HUGE surprise, right? I know, I know.)
I still have a major fondness for one-hundred-item lists. For plans that map out the next three years with precision.
I love the idea of my personal universe clicking along, on well-oiled gears, everything spinning just as it should.
I love that. It's so tidy.
And when I'm on a planning tear, it feels so, so possible. Give me a calendar and a notepad and a pen, and you will see me work up some serious control-freak euphoria.
There's only one thing more dependable than my desire to plan: The way those plans almost always explode. Or dissolve. Or vanish.
They tank, they go south, they self-destruct. Swept overboard by crises, illness, injuries.
(What's that? Oh yes. I'm still fending off a four-week sinus-infection-meets-bronchitis supervirus from hell. It has slowed down my writing progress a tiny bit. ... It is also gross.)
Plans blow up, and then I'm reminded—oh, yet again—that I am actually operating in a world that I don't control.
So I take a little time to recover, to soften my grip on the calendar and the pen and the hundred-item list. I give myself some chocolate, find a cozy blanket, and then remind myself of this quote.
This fantastic, writing-life-altering quote:
Teach yourself to work in uncertainty. — Bernard Malamud
That's the kind of quote that used to reduce this control freak to a quivering wreck. Because that is not what I wanted Mr. Malamud to say.
I wanted him to say: "Never fear, writer! You actually are a little god! You can make everything go your way if you just PLAN HARD. Don't give up!! Fight! Grip it all too tight! Insist on your own version of reality in the face of everything else! Mwahahahaha!!"
He did not say that.
Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.
Kind of makes it sound like the certain thing in the writing life is actually—its uncertainty.
I'm finally waking up to the fact that the thing I can absolutely predict is that there will be chaos, there will be some event that checks my plans, there will be evil-minded germs.
And the writing itself can jump the tracks: Outlines suddenly sound like gibberish. Favorite characters start acting like morons. Dialogue devolves into silly clichéd exchanges.
An appetite for reading goes dry. A disciplined working routine fizzles. Plans fail.
There is always uncertainty. We can count on it.
It took me a while to see how hopeful and wonderful Malamud's quote is. Because yes, there is always uncertainty.
But there are also two other constants in that quote. Two other things to be counted on:
There is always the work. That work we're called to, like someone tied a string to our hearts, and tied the other end to stories.
And then, there is always the writer.
She might be beaten up, she might have suffered loss, she might look like she's just clambered out of a shipwreck.
She might have just drunk all the tea in the house and be sitting amidst a pile of used tissues. (Who, me?)
She might not be able to save her writing with plans and schedules. She might not be able to see clear to the end of the endeavor like she wants to.
But that's okay. That's the thing. That's the really, really good news:
There is always uncertainty. There is always the work. And there is always you, my dear lionheart.
And when we train ourselves to work, despite the uncertainty, then we actually become invincible.
We don't have to understand exactly how we're going to get this draft done on time. We don't have to be able to diagnose all the ills of our upcoming months in advance.
Spoiler alert: 2016 is NOT going to go according to plan.
Seriously. There is some major stuff heading toward our lives.
Some of these plans for our writing—so neat! so clever! so possible!—will absolutely be swallowed by the perfect storm of crazy that is coming.
I'm guaranteeing it.
That used to make me tense and white-knuckled. That used to make me run around, screaming.
Guess how I thought I'd fix everything? By planning harder.
Granted: A bit of good strategizing will help. Of course it will.
But it is so easy to get trapped in a cycle of overthinking and overplanning: Let's get all the variables accounted for! Let's find three ways to defeat each obstacle! Let's make a list of forty things I have to do every single day to stay on schedule!!
But the best, best, best thing to do in the face of uncertainty is the work.
The ACTUAL work.
Not planning the work. Not analyzing notes. Not listing new ways to research.
But the real, true, sweet storytelling work itself.
Craft the next sentence. Write the very next paragraph. Sketch out the next chapter.
Actual words for the actual story.
Even though you're not sure! Even though everything's shivering and unstable! Write. Even then.
Over the last three years, life has dealt me a serious amount of bizarre and frustrating and crazy circumstances.
Planning has its allure, but it has never, ever saved the day like writing has.
It gets easier with practice. It comes more naturally. It's a skill we can grow.
So let's practice that together, okay, lionheart?
Whatever form of uncertainty is facing you right now—whether big life circumstances, or just the normal plain uncertainty of how the heck are you going to finish that novel?!—whatever that is, consider it for a moment.
And then take a really deep breath.
Right now. Yes, really.
A super deep breath. And then let it all out. Then do it two more times. (Something about three deep breaths. It's a thing. I love it.)
And then do a little writing. It doesn't have to be much.
Grab an index card and write the very next sentence of your story. A line of dialogue that's spot-on for your protagonist. A smidge of description for your favorite bit of setting.
Write down something, anything, that reconnects you to the heart of the tale you're telling.
Not to the planning. To the work.
Writing is the best medicine, the best antidote, and the best safeguard in the face of uncertainty.
Use it well. And use it often.
(Don't you feel just a little bit better now?)