Dispatches | October 28, 2013

For a few weeks now, my right knee has been sore. Localizing the pain is a little difficult to do, but the best I can manage is to say that it’s the kneecap, not anything inside my knee. A bone bruise would be my best guess. So, if a little late, I took a week off, and decided that my knee felt better. Not good. Not healthy. Just better.

I went to my normal Sunday basketball game, a 5-on-5 full court game at a local junior high, and played for two and a half hours. You can probably guess from how that previous sentence ended that 150 minutes of basketball was not the best way to ease back into physical activity. My knee throbbed. I went home and put ice packs on it and took some ibuprofen.

Along with Sunday, I also play full court basketball during the week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I head up to MizzouRec to get a few more games in. My knee was still achy. I figured I could tolerate the pain. This was half-true. Yes, I could tolerate the pain. But my body, adjusting to the physiological reason for pain (hint, Michael: something is wrong with your body!), overcompensated, and then the back of my knee ached. I was literally hobbling as I was running up and down the court, almost dragging my leg, to get back on defense. I have finally, stubbornly, decided to take a rest and sit out for the foreseeable future until my knee feels better.

(note: No, I’m not a hundred percent confident that I do not have some serious knee damage, but if you’re really worried, shoot me an email or a DM and insist I get a MRI. But I think I’m okay)

What does this have to do with writing (or editing or publishing)? My two problems here—a high threshold for pain, and a tendency to be stubborn–are bad for both my physical health and my writing.

When I’m stuck with a story, or even simpler, a paragraph or two, my tendency is to keep working on it until it is “right.” This means lots of time spent agonizing over the words. I’ll print out a page, double spaced so I can write between the lines, and think about each word, look up definitions, find antonyms and synonyms, move clauses around, picture the imagery the lines are attempting to create, remove a comma (only to reinsert it an hour later), walking around my dining room table reading lines aloud, lots of frowning (at the page and generally out into space). Sometimes, this creates baby steps toward making the writing better. Most of the time, however, when I’ve hit this stage, when I genuinely have no idea what to do next, I end up scowling the rest of the day.

I know what works better: stop writing. Close the file; tuck the story in a desk drawer. Don’t look at it or think about it for a weeks. Open it up and read it all the way through, and all problems—and their solutions—are crystal clear.

We see this at TMR all the time. The phrase we throw around is “the writer doesn’t know what the story is about yet.” It sounds a bit counter-intuitive: I mean, who wrote the story after all? Nonetheless, when reading manuscripts that are good, but not quite there, what we find is that the story seems to lack meaning or lack focus, the story skimming along at the surface of things rather than actually exploring its depths. Often, we can point to the scene or page where things seem off.

Every writer, I’m sure, has run into this moment: the story is pretty good, but something is missing. You can talk yourself into it, can’t you? Ah, maybe it’s not perfect, but I like it. That sort of thing. You power through it. You think the whole is big than the parts. Kinda like when you’re hobbling up and down a basketball court because, hey, eighty percent is better than nothing.

But taking a breather, stepping back, from exercise or writing, isn’t nothing. It’s necessary. It’s the process. Part of writing is not writing, when your unconscious mind lets the story marinate and that elusive “it” sinks into the narrative. Part of exercise is eating properly and getting enough rest.  This is a very different thing from “writer’s block,” a phrase that, as my former students well know, I don’t believe in at all. This isn’t claiming I can’t write because of a failure of imagination. This is recognizing that when a story hits a certain draft, when your changes to the manuscript take you nowhere and yet you know the right word or right image or right phrase is tantalizingly out of reach, part of the process is stepping back and letting the answers drift to you rather than reaching for them.

I still struggle to recognize when I’m tired, when I’ve worn myself out from trying to do too much at one time. Hard work has been drilled into my mind, and it’s difficult for me to think of periods of rest as anything other than pure laziness. Rest and recovery, work smarter not harder, etc. You and I have heard these platitudes before. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s from having a serious injury, but I’m recognizing that there is a distinction between quitting and resting, between giving up and giving space. Acknowledging the difference might prevent catastrophic injury. Or making your story not just good, but great.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye