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Tolerating Uncertainty (and Inefficiency)

photo by Flickr's Claire L. Evans [1]
photo by Flickr’s Claire L. Evans

I love having a plan, a detailed goal that I can accomplish based on my own timeline. When I was seven, for example, I made a list of things I wanted to purchase. 1. Olivia Newton John record 2. Red clogs 3. Beaded moccasins 4. Mrs. Grossman stickers.

I included the cost of each item, as well as when, based on chores and allowance and collecting out-of-town neighbors’ mail, I’d have saved the money. I got that Olivia Newton John record. The moccasins and stickers too. My parents gave me shiny red clogs for Christmas.

I kept up this planning into my adult years. After college, when my best friends started moving away to pursue promotions or grad school or men, I found myself happily teaching high school English. But I was lonely. Right around that time, my boyfriend, Fritz, dumped me (over the phone). Then we got back together. Then he dumped me again (over the phone). Without my besties or even a douche-canoe like Fritz, I needed a plan to combat my loneliness. So I made another list: People I’d Like to Spend More Time With. And then I set about the task of getting unlonely.

Along with plans and goals, I love efficiency. The day I found a chocolate chip cookie recipe where I wasn’t required to put the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ones in another, only to combine them? Halleluyah! Efficiency and one less bowl to wash!

I am equally efficient when I fold laundry or grocery shop or walk my kids to school. Some of this appreciation for efficiency is based on my DNA, some on my upbringing. Growing up in California where drought was common, I learned to take two-minute showers. These days, as it costs about $8 million to fill our old oil furnace, I wear a jacket to avoid turning up the heat. Why waste heat when I’m the only one home? If my husband leaves his breakfast plate on the counter, I brush off the toast crumbs and have my son use that same plate. My signature? Not Sarah Reed Callender, but SCall. I like to do things quickly, and I don’t like waste.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I am a writer. Even writers who are Plotters can never be truly efficient. Except for Stephen King. While I am not a huge fan of scary novels, I loved everything about King’s craft book, On Writing [2]. Except for the part where he says he writes one book each season. That seemed a little braggy. With my WIP, I am roughly 26 months in, and I have roughly 10,810 words. That’s 34 pages. In 26 months. If you do the math, I will punch you in the throat.

My kids and part-time jobs decrease my writing time, but even if I wrote fiction full-time, I don’t think I’d be a threat to Mr. One-Season. I have to accept that my love of efficiency is not transferable to my writing, that I require a significant Muddling and Experimenting phase that includes staring out the window, generating charts and lists and plot arcs, color-coding and highlighting moments of tension and climax, only to realize I have been holding the metaphorical map upside down. I am lost. My story is nowhere to be found.

Square one-ing, I sigh and turn the map, hoping the improved POV will help me, first, find my story, and second, get my story from A to Z. Or A to B.

Muddling and Experimenting is a period of getting excited about brilliant ideas, only to realize the ideas are poop. It’s a period of yelling at my muses: “SPEAK ENGLISH PLEASE!” Because they are clearly not. Sometimes they are not speaking at all. Sometimes they are drunk or playing Minecraft or fly fishing in Montana.

Don’t even get me started about the thousands of pages I write, then realize they do nothing to further plot or heighten tension. Being a waste-hater, I tenderly swaddle these precious scene-babies in a file I call WIP-junkyard.doc, certain I will find a way to repurpose them in another story. Ha! Do you reuse your appendix after an appendectomy? No. Not even as a doorstop or a pin cushion. After filling (and never returning to) many WIP-junkward.doc docs, I have come to accept the same is true for these vestigial words. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe unused words are a necessary part of the process. Maybe experimentation is not a waste.

Regarding experimentation: I recently came across an article about scientists taking creative writing classes [3], and I thought of Heather, my friend who has an MD/PhD and her own research lab. Heather is devoted to the discovery of novel genomic disorders-conditions caused by small deletions or duplications of DNA, and she has been involved in the discovery and characterization of several new genomic disorders, including deletions of chromosomes 1q21, 15q13 and 17q12.

I don’t understand anything in that previous sentence.

BUT! Heather doesn’t write fiction. Heather may find cures to epilepsy, but we writers are the brilliantly creative ones. We are the artists. Scientists focus on one itsy-bitsy gene. We focus on the genetic make-up of an entire story. Take that!

This professor, however, was impressed with his science-students’ creative writing:

During the year of reading and writing and observing, students learn to tolerate uncertainty in process and outcome, embrace risk (creative, intellectual and performance) and practice humility – since writing is an exercise in failing better each time. Their writing is imaginative in theme and topic. They do not fall fatally in love with their work and will abandon experimental dead ends. Their killer work ethic sustains them through the endless revision that is essential to good writing.

OK. Right. Heather likely wouldn’t have discovered the deletions of chromosomes 1q21 (huh?) if she couldn’t tolerate uncertainty. It is risky to work on something uncertain. It can feel inefficient. But I bet even King Stephen of Efficiencyshire tolerates uncertainty in process and outcome. I bet he sees “practice” instead of “waste.” And he keeps writing stories, one each season.

While it may take several seasons to find my way to the story, and several more to find my way through the story, it seems to be a necessary phase in my process, a process that stems, perhaps, from a literary disorder due to the chromosomal deletion of 17q12. Oh well. I bet Mr. King also has a semi-quirky genetic situation, deletions or duplications that float around in his Carrie/Shining/Cujo/It/Misery-creating DNA.

Now will you share some details of your personal process? What do you call your various phases of story-making? How have you learned to tolerate uncertainty or found ways to increase your efficiency? Do you think “Fritz” is a pseudonym? 

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.

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