The Hard Parts

Recently a dear author friend, Virginia Euwer Wolff, posed what seemed to be a very simple question: What's the hardest part about writing and editing?  As I explored how I might want to answer her question, I realized why I haven't posted anything on my blog recently: it's hard!  What do I say? How do I say it? What's worth writing about? I have lots of ideas, but where do I begin?  Will anyone care? Do I really know what I'm doing?

This exercise to answer Jinny's question has gotten me thinking about what it takes for us to work through our fears and doubts in order to face that which is hard; face it, work through it, and master it.  It takes confidence, it takes time, and it takes a leap of faith.   For someone like me, who fancies herself both an editor and a writer, I fall into the trap of editing myself before I've even put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. I edit myself off the page entirely, so that I find the hardest part of writing to be beginning -- putting words down on that blank page or blank screen. Beginnings are so daunting, so full of promise, so unknown, so vast. You know what you want to say and do, but it all feels so huge and out of control. You know that once you start, you will be in control, but until you make that first mark, it's so very hard.

I equate the feeling to being on skis at the top of a hill, looking down the expanse of crisp white snow. You know what you need to do, you know where (generally) you want to end up, but until you actually take a breath and let the tips of those skis point down the hill and make the first mark in that snow, it all feels impossible. Deep breath.  Remind yourself how gratifying and fun the journey will be once you get going.  And then--you're off! You're soaring! And you wonder what took you so long....

And then, when a new story is asking to be written, you find yourself right back at the top of that vast, daunting ski slope, taking a deep breath and wondering how in the world to begin...again!  And it's then that my editor self takes over...again! 

Editing comes easily to me, but it's not always easy. I think the hardest part of editing a manuscript is being sure that you're completely attuned to the voice of the story you're editing. And by voice, I mean everything from the actual stylistic voices of the narrator and the characters to the more subtle aspects of the storytelling, such as nuance, emotion, motivation, desire, and overall arc. If an editor's not able to find and feel that rhythm in order to be in tune with the voice in which the author's writing, then the editor's not going to be in tune with the author's intentions for the story nor with the character's motives enough to pose the right questions, make inspiring suggestions and instill trust in the author. Editing an author's work is akin to orchestrating a quiet but keen form of back-up harmony for that author's words and ideas. But without being attuned to the song in the first place, such harmony can never be achieved--and so the editor pauses, ever so briefly, to be sure they know how to listen to each new story that crosses the desk.

Taking the leap. Finding the rhythm. Working through the hard parts to dispel the doubts, to listen fully to yourself if you're the writer, to listen fully to someone else if you're the editor.  I suppose, really, the hardest part of all:  Trusting yourself. And when you do, you just have to wonder...what took you so long?

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks llc


  1. Emma, thanks for sharing this. You found the perfect rhythm for this post!

  2. Emma –
    Your musings always hit home for me, and I love the skiing metaphor. But - sometimes my writing is like my brother-in-law’s problem with the moguls (back when we could ski them). He realized that after taking that big breath at the top of the hill, he just held it in, so he ran out of breath ½ way down the run!
    So here’s to trusting ourselves to not only start the journey but breathe along the way!

  3. Your words find me at a perfect time. I know the feeling of sitting atop a mountain wondering how in the world I will ever make it to the bottom or why I even rode that infernal lift up here in the first place. I know from experience that a steady series of left turns and right turns will get me safely to the place that sells hot chocolate. It is true. Somehow, when I no longer hear the voice in my head repeating, "left, then right," I discover that my mind and body take over and find a nice rhythm. Magically, I look around and realize how much d@mn fun I am having.

    With this analogy, I can now look at my WIP in a new light. I am somewhere near the top with the wind and snow still blowing strong. I have folded and refolded my map. I studied the big board carefully choosing a pretty path. I blow by my nice little green and head for the blue run with the rolling hills. This is where I am with my first novel length endeavor. Right now, I need to listen to voice in my head saying "turn left, now turn right" as my mind and body have not found that natural rhythm yet.

    Thanks again for giving me a process to compare my work to. This makes sense to me. I need to find that rhythm and then the joy will come just like on the slopes.

  4. Yay, Emma, you're back! Woo hoo! Love both analogies. I guess it all comes down to trusting yourself, for sure. Here's to writing and living our lives intentionally! Thanks.

  5. Emma, I finally took a deep breath, gripped hard my ski poles and launched myself onto that red slope and wrote the first chapter in a new (for me) genre this week, after a month of procrastination, only to wonder once again, as you wrote, what took me so long. I think if I were both writer and editor, like you, it would feel like looking down a black run, and I am still way to scared and inexperienced to attempt those yet. Thanks for the inspiration.

    P.S. Don't know if US and Europe colour code their slopes the same way?

  6. It's funny isn't it? Diaries used to be such a private thing, until we were dead. (And then only public if you'd done something interesting or infamous.) Now we are encouraged to blather our thoughts willy-nilly to the world. So it's nice, Emma, that you take such time to post and your thoughts mean so much to so many of us.

    Personally I find my blog has motivated me - to think about what's interesting to share with others, to share my journey and to ponder on what not to share. I confess I enjoy the weeks when I have new sketches and artwork and maybe I hide behind them a little. Baring your soul is hard. When I get a reader from a far-flung place like India I wonder what on earth they make of my outpourings!

  7. Thanks for this wonderful post. I totally agree. Writing is hard. At any stage. I also do both writing and editing and I find it's way easier to edit someone else than it is to sit down and write for myself. And yes, it's fear that often stops me. When I'm looking at someone else's work, I'm confident, but all that confidence leaks out when I stare at my own blank page. I'll share this link with others who probably feel the same!

  8. Anonymous6/16/2011

    This is a beautiful post, Emma. It's nice to know I'm not the only one intimidated by fear.

    Thank you for your honesty. As always.

  9. Emma, what an eloquent post. The fear I feel when sharing my writing is palpable. Your post puts into words what I so often feel. I love to reflect and "write in my head" and I often feel like the actual words that I get out on a screen never completely express what I want to say or flow as nicely as they do in my mind. Thanks for sharing. It's nice to know that someone who writes as well as you do feels the same fears as I do.

  10. Thank you for this delicate and intuitive exploration of the spaces between intention and expression on the page.

  11. How true! And what a lovely post. I've just landed, butterflies in my stomach, wondering what took me so long. I procrastinated with research and kept telling myself if I just took one more day to read this book or took a few more notes I be better prepared. It was time to leap! Please keep finding your way back to the page.

  12. Wonderful, Emma. A great reminder. I needed that. Hope you are well!

  13. Emma I ran across your name, info and picture on the SCBWI website. I am a member of SCBWI, not a fully immersed member, but a member nonetheless :o) I am very glad I checked into your blog here. Your elaborations on "The Hard Parts", truly spoke to me as I am that terrified and "not-so-confident" skier at the top of that lonely, cold and windblown hill top awaiting some sort of entrance to hopefully a fulfilling career path! I cannot seem to get started and seem to be in a bog searching for a sturdy limb to pull myself out. As you are on the advisor board for the SCBWI might I inquire into a bit of advisory assistance? If you are able to answer a few questions, without my tying up everyone on this blog, could you please respond to my email address, rluvsdogs@yahoo.com. Thank you! And thank you again for the blog!

    A fellow artist,
    Rose Simpao

  14. Terrific post! I completely agree with your conclusion, that it all comes down to a issue of trust. Not only do we need to trust ourselves as writers, we must also trust the process--whatever that looks like to each of us.

  15. So true... When I begin a new poem or notebook entry or article, I often feel just like a dog going 'round and 'round, unsure of how to settle into a nap. But then, once the ink hits the paper, the ideas bloom. Sometimes they're ugly, but at least they've bloomed! Thank you for your insights. A.