Cathy and I are back home after a splendid week away on the shore of Lake Erie, and now, like some of you, perhaps, I’m faced with getting back to work on an unfinished manuscript that I left alone while I was gone. “You don’t get good by wishing to be,” the poet, Stephen Dunn, said when asked the similarities between poetry and basketball. “A kid goes to the schoolyard every day and shoots if he wants to be good. You do your poetry that way, too.” A regular writing practice becomes generative while also sharpening our skills. The more regularly we write, the better we write. A steady work habit, gradually over time, creates better work, but how do we get ourselves back in motion after a period of not writing?
One strategy involves easing ourselves back into the writing by taking the time to reread what we’ve already written. We need to refresh ourselves on the current state of things before we try to push the piece along. This is particularly true for any long-form work. I’m currently working on what I hope will be a novel-in-stories. I have a large cast of characters, and sometimes, even when I’m working steadily, I have a hard time remembering things about them—their concerns, their fears, their details, and the directions they take the plot—so when I come back to the manuscript tomorrow, I’ll need to remind myself of who these people are, how they interconnect, and what’s left to be resolved in their storylines. Sometimes writing doesn’t involve putting new words on the page. Sometimes it requires your close attention to what you’ve already written. Often, while I’m rereading, I’ll find myself rewriting a sentence, or adding a brushstroke here and there. This is all part of the necessary process of re-immersing myself in the world I’m creating.
Another possibility is to jump right in with courage and abandon. When I was growing up on a farm in southeastern Illinois, boys often learned to swim when their fathers tossed them into ponds, and natural instincts had to take over. Just like that, boys were swimming. Maybe this approach could work for writers as well. Try not even looking at your incomplete manuscript. Just write. Write anything. A scene of dialogue, a passage of description or interiority. Don’t worry about where what you write might fit in, or even if it will. Write as a way of reintroducing yourself to the work in progress. Write until you feel something begin to take hold. Write until you’re ready to fully engage with what you’ve already written. You might feel like you’re flailing at first, but just relax and before you know it your strokes will be more sure, and you’ll be making significant progress.
Cathy and I had a marvelous time on our vacation, and we miss Lake Erie dearly. We had to come home, though. Stella the Cat was waiting for us, having been cared for handsomely by her pet sitter, and we’re now all ready to get back into our regular routines. It was good to have a break, but, of course, the work continues. I hope that something in this post will be helpful to you when you find yourself returning to a manuscript in progress after some time away. Try not to make your writing routine one of interruptions, but when they’re necessary, find a way to re-engage with the work in a way that will allow you to produce pages more easily. Remember, the more you write, the more you write, and the more you write, the better you write. Keep going!