Sitting with ambiguity in writing

I have been thinking quite a bit about persistence and the process of writing. Part of it is from ongoing conversations with other writers, but the other part of it is this character/story I’ve been working on since 2010. What topped it all off was a donor-only email that went out from the Office of Letters and Light, the awesome non-profit who hosts NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] every November. The title of that email was, “When You Love It Too Much To Let It Go.” I’ll be honest and say I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but just the first part of it reminds me of this story, which we’ll call SAH for now. (SAH stands for Safe as Houses, the first iteration of this story.)

This history of this story began during NaNoWriMo 2010, when an idea hit me and I followed it through to an ending. My computer promptly crashed five days later. I thought I had a backed up copy – but did not. Last year, during NaNoWriMo, I took pieces of the story and explored a character who had been knocking around my brain. It took ideas from the 2010 story and was a different way to end the story. I didn’t finish but was intrigued and have been writing pieces from this character’s story on and off since November.

I’ve been pinning a lot of hope on this story. And, with hope, ultimately comes fear. Fear that I won’t be able to do justice to the story (or character). Fear that it won’t “be right.” And so, I allow fear to hold me back. (Recall the previous post about practice?) It means there’s this cycle that keeps going on – fear of not writing right, then I don’t write. Because I don’t write, I fear I can’t get it right (and, as it happens, I don’t even get it written!). So, the cycle continues.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t want to care about this story, or character. I’ve had to find different ways to get into her head, and recently, have been writing from another character’s point of view. It’s the only way I’ve been able to see some of the flaws and some of the places where I kept getting stuck. There’s been good in that I’ve been able to find various ways into this story.

November (Photo credit: kurafire)

The problem? I still don’t know where I’m going with it! I find myself struggling with that ambiguity. And I think about my meditation training, and how there is ambiguity in our lives – every moment of every day. That my time on the cushion gives me the tools to come back to my breath (or, as I do in writing, come back to the page), and explore what’s there. I can’t know everything. Sometimes, you keep doing something simply because you want to see how it is going to turn out. And, for writing, is there more joy than that discovery process?

As a reader, I trust that the writer will draw me in enough and keep me going enough that I can follow. As a writer, I need to come to terms with the fact that the process of writing also takes trust. I won’t have the answers in front of me, right away. I need to let go of clutching to the story, so I might let it fly and see what is brought back. Because there, my friends, is often magic to be found.

What might you find by leaning into ambiguity?

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
― E.L. Doctorow


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