Every book on writing I’ve ever read has had a common theme: the work will evolve as you lean into the creative process. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves as writers is to be prepared for the eventuality that as we write, the story will begin to take us in unexpected directions.
To write well is to pay attention.
You may find your characters saying things you didn’t have in your outline, but somehow you know that these words are what they need to say. You may find your research questions turning around and reading you, leading you down a different path than you had initially anticipated. You may find those searching questions from that one insistent friend settling into your mind and trickling down into your writing.
If there’s one thing I can say to you when you find yourself at this crossroads, it’s this: open your hands. As best you are able, unclench those proverbial fists that are holding so tightly onto that brilliant idea or that witty dialogue or that surprising ending that just doesn’t fit anymore, and allow the work to take you where it needs to go. In this moment, rest assured: whether you write novels, short stories, poems, essays, articles, cookbooks, or anything else in between, every writer experiences this.
Recently I’ve experienced this truth in my own writing. I could have told you it holds true, based on the authority of people like Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, or Maxwell Perkins, all of whose wisdom on writing is some of the best out there. Let me share with you some of what I’ve discovered through this process.
Since August, I’ve been in the year-long process of researching and writing a Master’s thesis, and only in the last month have I realized, somewhat reluctantly, that my words are beginning to write a different ending than I had intended. The purported topic of my thesis, the one I had told everyone who asked way back in the summer, is now not even going to be a full paragraph in the final work: it’s been reduced to a mere footnote, albeit a hefty one.
But the more I wrote, the more I realized how damaging to the creative process it was to keep trying to shove my words and my research into a predetermined conclusion. When I sat down and let my ideas flow without judgment and internal criticism, I produced writing that had meaning for me. When my own words resonated in my spirit as true, rather than attempting to analyze others’ words or ideas, I knew this was the direction that would make the work flourish instead of merely exist.
When you find yourself here, I encourage you to hold your hands open, but also to be gentle with yourself and your words. I know how hard it is to let go of hours of research and thought, pages and pages of writing, others’ good ideas, and finally admit: this is no longer what the book is about. You probably won’t need to start over entirely, but maybe you need to take a serious look at what needs to be rearranged, altered, or simply cut for the sake of the book as a whole.
Trust becomes a vital part of the process here. If this crossroads has you stuck, when you know that the work needs to lead somewhere different but you’re uncertain where exactly that different path is, you have the choice to trust. Writing is hard work for many reasons, and this is one of the main ones: you have to be willing to let the work transform even as you are transformed by it. If you have writing in your blood, if something deep within you compels you to write, there is a part of you that will inevitably be changed by the words as you let them emerge. But this process will result in a beautiful work that will surprise you with its vibrancy, if you open your hands and let it lead you.