[Editor’s note: In celebration of the print release of Pete Peterson’s “The Oracle of Philadelphia,” we share with you a piece from Pete originally published on the Rabbit Room blog in 2014 which narrates the frustration and reward of the writing process. Enjoy!]
Yesterday, I saw someone on Facebook mention that they’d sent the final draft of their manuscript off to the publisher after having rewritten and revised it so much that they had come to hate it and could stand to look at it no longer. I know that feeling.
When I sit down to write, one of two things happens. The first possibility is that I have a great idea, know exactly what I want to write and how I want to write it, and I bang it out in a whirl of clacking laptop keys. When I’m finished I triumphantly hammer down the save button and go away feeling satisfied with myself.
The second possibility is that I sit and stare at the screen for a while, eventually writing an awful sentence, then deleting it, then writing another but maybe deleting only half of it because the first part wasn’t quite as bad as the last, then staring at and loathing even that until I delete and rewrite it twelve more times. This continues for an hour or two until I’ve got a few hundred words cobbled together that I can no longer stand to look at. I close the laptop and walk away feeling a little sick and a lot like a complete hack.
To be fair, there’s a third possibility—a hybrid of the other two. I’ll have a great idea, and I’ll know exactly what I want to do with it, but when I sit down to write, nothing comes together.
The interesting thing, though, is what happens the next day. When I come back to pick up where I left off, I read over the last thing I wrote and, in general, I find that whatever was written in the first case is usually a royal mess that’s nowhere near as clever or as interesting as I thought it was while I was writing it. On the other hand, the writing done in the second case is usually pretty good—which seems completely backwards. Right?
In my experience, the writing I do under what I’d call “inspiration” is usually far inferior to the writing I do when I have to rely on little more than hard work. When the words are coming easy, they tend to end up sloppy. When I have to squeeze every word out amid weeping and gnashing of teeth, relying on a developed set of skills rather than on the sugary high of inspiration, the work tends to be lean and focused—in other words, it tends to be pretty good. That’s a hard truth for me, but I’m learning to rest on it.
Illustration by Stephen Hesselman
I wrote a short story last month called “The Oracle of Philadelphia,” and it’s a good example. I started out with two ideas that I really liked—a fun twist on the historical Oracle of Delphi, and the idea of two men adrift on a melting ice floe. I had no clear idea of what either of those things had to do with the other, but it felt right. I started off strong and banged out several scenes of Thurston and Obadiah adrift on the ice, but then I hit wall. Inspiration ran out and, like my characters, I was stranded on a melting life raft with nowhere to go. I had nothing left to lean on but discipline.
I had committed myself to finishing the story, and I had my wife to be accountable to, if no one else. So I kept going back to those scenes, adding a sentence here, deleting one there, scrapping this, adding that, and slowly, painfully, a functional story began to emerge.* When I finished, I told Jennifer, “Well, I got to the end. But I hate it.”
The story was awful. I was sure of it.
But though I hated it, I felt like the core of the story hung together, if only just, and so I started rewriting and revising, taking the thing I had come to loathe and breaking it down a sentence at a time, trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Though I’d fallen completely out of love with the story, I was committed to reworking it to the point that I could publish it without being embarrassed by it.
I kept at it mechanically until, in the end, I was sick of it and could stand to look at it no more. So I gave it to trusted friends to help me see where my blind spots were. More revisions followed until, again, I had to abandon it. It was as good as I could make it—even if I felt it wasn’t good enough.
But a few days later, a fresh read of the story changed my mind. I found that now, after all, I loved the story again. Why? Because I had put work into it, work enough that my puppy love for the story had faded until I could see it objectively and scour away its imperfections (though I’m sure it has plenty more that could stand a good scrubbing).
That first swell of love we have for a potential work isn’t inspiration, it’s infatuation. And just like in human relationships, once the infatuation fades, the real work of love begins. Pete Peterson
I think if anyone is serious about writing (or art in general) it’s important to get beyond what we usually like to call “inspiration.” In fact, that’s the wrong word. That first swell of love we have for a potential work isn’t inspiration, it’s infatuation. And just like in human relationships, once the infatuation fades, the real work of love begins. And it’s in the context of that real work—that work in which you may seem at times to fall out of love with the object of your labor—it’s in that work that real inspiration takes place. It’s in that work that the Holy Spirit often does work of his own. And it’s out of that hard labor that a work of art is finally hewn.
So if you’ve created something and labored over it until you can no longer stand to look at it, keep the faith, your work is not in vain.
“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” —Thomas Edison
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” —attributed to a number of people who apparently abandoned the original quote
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” —dubiously attributed to William Faulkner
*For the record, not a single jot of those original scenes remains in the final story.