The Overwhelm Factor

Most prose writers at some point get overwhelmed by the scope of their material.  Except for those deliberately writing short, stand-alone pieces, writers usually face projects whose scope or subject matter is larger than most human beings can fathom.  The memories are too complex, the emotions too fearsome, the pages too many, the themes too interconnected, the motivations too secret.  The majority of writers who seek me out as a coach do so because they’re overwhelmed.  They want me to fix it.

I have two seemingly opposite responses to the overwhelm factor.  First, don’t we want our work to be bigger than us?  The best writing addresses universal truths; it digs down to the essence of human nature; it asks questions that have been with us since the beginning of time.  Literature always connects the personal to the universal, the telling detail to the broadest abstraction.  The fact that we’re overwhelmed by our work means we’re doing good work, or at least work that matters.

Second, every project, no matter how overwhelming, has entry points that are infinitely manageable.  I’ve yet to encounter a subject that can’t be broken down into smaller pieces.  An image, a question, a character’s face, a memorable setting—any of these can provide a way in.  Likewise, drafts always have cracks in them where a writer can insert a crowbar.  We can acquire the tools we need to “re-see” our structure or strengthen a plot.  Time—years and even decades—allows us to work wonders with large projects.

So the key to moving forward on a project is accepting that overwhelming feeling as the nature of writing while at the same time finding these small, practical avenues into the work.  I think this is what Rilke meant when he told the young poet, “Live the questions.”  We don’t want to rid ourselves of the great Mystery; we want to engage it, we want to give our readers a small glimpse of it.  Successful writers are willing to work despite all the discomforts.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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