I am one of those neurotic folks who thinks that everyone else was issued a full set of instructions at birth. For everything–friendship, clothes, housekeeping, parenting, business. Mostly I’ve learned to background that assumption, or even forget it for long periods of time. (I am always convinced that people I think are cool must have homes that are tidier and cleaner and better organized than mine. Visiting these people is often eye-opening, and yet I keep expecting the people whose work I admire to have homes like pages from House and Garden.) There are situations–job hunting, class reunions, etc.–that revive that anxiety, but mostly I know better.
Except about writing. It’s not that I think everyone else’s writing is better than mine–I have seen enough to know that that’s not true. There are some kinds of things I will never be able to write, and some writers I outstrip, and that’s just the way it is. But process? Ah, process. That’s where the neurotic certainty that I didn’t get the memo really kicks in.
There are a zillion books out there that will tell you how to write. My mother used to give me the more high-flown, literary ones (she wanted to write literary short stories in the Updike/O’Hara style; failing that, she wanted me to write literary short stories etc.). I never bought any for myself (and I’m sorry to say I never read any of the books Mom bought me). Why? Am I too good for advice? Not hardly. When a friend says “Oh, I have that problem too; you know what works for me?” I listen. I’ve learned a lot in just that way. It’s possible, nay, probable, that I would learn excellent things in all the writing books out there, if I read them. But I have a superstitious, deeply irrational fear of messing with my process, which means I don’t actually look too closely at how I power myself through writing, lest it somehow evaporate.
See, I’m still convinced that everyone else got the memo. Memo-less, I’ve been making it up as I go along for decades. I have a series of tricks and strategies I’ve used when I lose steam on a project or get wholly derailed; I know some things about how I work (I always, always hit a speed bump somewhere between chapter 5 and chapter 7 of a book. I have theories about why, but really, the important part is that I no longer panic when it happens). For the rest, it’s kind of a mystery to me. You know what? It works for me.
When I was at Clarion, Kate Wilhelm described the way she put a book together, and her husband Damon Knight sat right next to her, pleased but mystified by the process she described. “I tried her process once,” he said later. “It was interesting.”
I guess the burden of this particular song is: whether you got the memo or not, if what you’re doing works, it works. If you’re writing, and your work is progressing, Ur Doing it Rite.