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Progress

Friday, February 6, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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Kerenann fringe

(Proof that procrastination is sometimes productive: thanks to Emma I found my new hair cut, these saucy bangs ala Keren Ann!)

I had a struggle with my writing today, it felt like I was banging up against a barrier and I wasn't sure I had the guts or the skills to push through it. But I did, and in the process I learned something new about how I write. Hopefully I'm slowly developing my own "User's Manual to the Writer's Brain", as Laini wrote here.

I've just finished up writing almost 12,000 wds on Gaza. They were surprisingly
easy to write and I actually liked them. It's been a period of feeling increasingly confident that I actually can write this book, a good run you might say. But it was enough. I had said what needed to be said about Gaza to set the scene for my arrival in Kabul and I wanted
to move on to Afghanistan.

But the shift was stopping me in my tracks. I felt unsure, suddenly, of
the whole premise of the book. Maybe I should be writing a book about Gaza. It is certainly topical at the moment. More than that, I was writing about Gaza with confidence. The passage of almost a
decade has transformed my lived experiences of Gaza into relatively
well rehearsed stories in my head. I've told my stories of Gaza often
enough to know which ones people respond to, which seem to get across
the feelings and ideas that I want to communicate.

Starting in on Kabul it suddenly all felt too fresh, too recent. I couldn't choose
what to write and what to leave out. I have ditched much of what I
previously wrote about my arrival into Kabul because I now know I can't
write this book like a journal ('this happened and then this happened next'). I now see
how I need to tell the stories that I tell best, which are
predominantly anecdotes about my interactions with other people. I now
understand a little more about how those anecdotes will slowly build up
to show the transformation that these incredible people and countries
brought about in my life.

But which stories from Kabul? I didn't have the same process of years
of telling them to weed out the boring, crappy stories. So I got a
little freaked out, and I froze. I procrastinated by updating my Facebook status and reading blogs and surfing the internet for photo of great hairstyles for my hair appointment next week. I was avoiding the work and I felt rotten for it.

So, having found the perfect hairstyle (see above), and on the advice of Juliet at Writer Unboxed I spent some time scetching out the overall structure of my book on a big sheet of paper. I pinned that up to my notice-board and then tried to start writing. Again I was stuck. So I went back online and ordered some books on how to write memoir-style non-fiction. Still I was stuck

Finally I went for a walk. As I walked I saw that one of the stories I
had been trying to tell about Kabul just didn't work. It had meant a lot to me at
the time and had taught me something important. But as a story it didn't convey that lesson well. I was getting trapped into having explain why the story mattered, which none of us like to read. I'm pretty sure most readers, like me, prefer that the author tells the story and leaves it to us to decide what it means. So I ditched it.

I ditched quite a lot today. I also made some muesli, and visited my neighbour, watered the garden and did some washing. I went for that walk and played with my friend's baby daughter for a few hours. When I finally came back to my keyboard I knew that I needed to tell a different story. So, as the sun has set over the ocean here in Paekakariki, I've written a new start to my story in Afghanistan.

I'm still not sure if it is right, but at least I know why I chose it. I think that is progress.

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13 Responses to "Progress"

  1. Paris Parfait says:

    It’s definitely progress. Sometimes what we leave out is almost as important as what we leave in. As for Gaza, it’s an integral part of your life, so those stories feel more natural, as you’re now able to tell them from a different perspective. I can easily tell the stories from my past in the Middle East – it’s the current ones that are more difficult.
    As for reading books about writing, you can read a hundred of them. But in the end, it’s down to you and the page, telling the story. Use your voice; it’s a powerful one and you have many, many valuable and intriguing stories to tell. I look at your photo of the two Afghan children every single day to remind me why stories need to be told – and some of them, only we can tell! xo

  2. Paris Parfait says:

    P.S. I got a seriously-professional new camera. Now to learn how to use it! 🙂

  3. ash says:

    sometimes it takes setting what you origninally thought you’d write aside to later come back to it w/ force. and gaza is probably what you’re purposed to write about at this time. i commend you for pushing through the writer’s “block” and writing anyway. i have found myself a little stuck recently, whether it be writing articles or just blogging or even journaling…and certainly i’m hoping this will change soon…it’s driving me a little crazy and i need to force myself a little more….this is encouraging, thanks.

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    I find the process of writing fascinating … it’s hard to explain why some thing works and why some thing else doesn’t. That’s just how it is. It sounds like you have excellent writer’s intuition, and enough faith in yourself to trust it.

  5. [a} says:

    So much work goes into writing! It’s like the final published thing is the mere tip of an enormous iceberg.
    Good luck with everything!!

  6. Swirly says:

    With my writing class I feel like I am going through a huge learning curve about structure, technique, etc. Even though I am only a few weeks into the class, I can already see that I will always look back at this time as one of the most significant periods of growth with regard to my writing. It is a fascinating journey, this writing path. As always, you are inspiring me with your own process and progress.

  7. John Mullis says:

    Sounds like good therapy to me Frieda.
    Hang on in there girl, it’s like giving birth, lots of pain and discomfort, but it brings forth something unique to you, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your life.
    Not only that, it will give life to others too and make sense of the sacrifice of those who made your story possible.
    Keep it up.

  8. susanna says:

    Hmmm…my previous comment didn’t take for some reason…I’ll try it again….
    Sometimes we need to take a break from a project and allow ourselves to be distracted by other things – like good books, walks outside, a search for the perfect new bangs – in order to free our mind to new possibilities.
    It’s good that you have so many different approaches and perspectives for telling your stories. It might seem overwhelming at times to have so many options but perhaps by trying them all, you’ll find out which approach works best. Hang in there! You have a bestseller in you!

  9. linni says:

    while reading this post, i asked myself why don’t you write short stories…?
    Whatever you are going to publish will be written with such depth and love…and that is what the reader want to experience…your heart…at least
    for me…(who is not a writer)…i love to know why and how and because of what did the author (that would be YOU) write that….
    I can imagine writing a book with this content to be quite sensitive to some readers…
    just open your heart…and write.
    Thinking of you often,
    Linni xx

  10. Nikki says:

    Feel free to test your story telling on me. I’m already captivated!

  11. Mary says:

    Hello lovely. I’ve just spent a good hour on this site and feel like I’ve had a really good catch up with you. It’s nice to hear your voice. I love the book extracts! Hope you are well and enjoying your Paekak paradise. Much love xxx

  12. Susannah says:

    i am so proud – and inspired – by you, my friend… love you xox

  13. Jojo says:

    I wonder if you could use that story in a different context (Yoga Journal; short fiction; a short piece for an anthology) by making its very elusiveness the subject?
    Neatly structured stories are such a powerful tool, a kindness to the reader and a measure of one’s art. They’re like polished rocks: things of beauty, easy to hold, lovely to contemplate. I applaud you for knowing what to cut and when, so that your book is a joy to read.
    But the stories that resist tidiness are powerful too, because they speak of what we can’t know, cannot easily tell, still don’t understand. It could be very illuminating to dwell on the roughness and resistance. If anyone can do it, you can!

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