Trust the process: On writing as a kind of renovation

I’ve been watching a lot of reno shows: Leave it to Bryan, Holmes Inspection, Sarah 101, Real Potential. Strangely, I find watching other people’s renovations soothing, even while my own house being torn apart and rebuilt was causing me great stress.

It’s got me thinking about how we deal with big projects where things have to get a whole lot worse before they get better. Renos are a little like big writing projects, in that way. Both writing and renovating are about crafting that first vision of the difference between where you are and where you think you can get to, and about seeing past the (sometimes awful, usually dirty, often unexpected) details between those two pristine conditions of “before” and “after”

Because it’s the “during” where both renovating and writing tear their subjects apart.

When I write, it’s usually prompted by an exciting idea: “Hey! What if this seemingly political speech about the nature of the Internet actually discourages political participation???” I head to the library (virtually, usually) and grab everything relevant. I take tons of notes, highly great quotations, try on different methodologies. I’ll spend all day Googling. This is the fun part. In a reno, this is akin to the stage where you’re like: “What if just had a half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room? Then we’d get more light …” and then out come the stack of decorating magazines and I pick out door pulls and paint colors.” I’ll spend all day on Pinterest.

But when I commit to the actual writing, I find it’s pretty hard: a lot of the research already covers my big idea. Or, the main strands of thinking are incompatible with one another and I don’t know what to do. Or, I actually start a document draft and find I just can’t write anything interesting or even sensible. This is discouraging. My good idea is hard, and unpleasant, and might not work. In the reno, this is where they take the panelling off the ceiling and discover that your second floor is unsupported by joists of any kind. Or that wall between the kitchen and the dining room, while not structural, is actually full of vent pipes and heating runs, and, hooray, some knob and tube wiring (vintage baseboard: good; vintage wiring: not good).

OMIGOD my argument is totally without foundation!

This is the scariest part: I’ve committed resources to a project that has turned out to be harder and different than what I expected. There are obstacles, and it’s scary. My original idea is less joyful, and it’s not clear where I should go next. Ugh.

If you’re a writer (or a renovator) you have to just keep plugging away at it. You have to trust the process: you now from your own and from others’ past experiences that this is usually how it goes, and that the project will emerge out the other side. The mental and literal dust and noise and surprises and dead ends are very tiring though, and psychically / financially costly, to boot. I work at this every day, and it’s hard.

Looking good.

The next trick, if you keep plugging away at it, is to learn to see through the bones to the finished room (article) or, sometimes, through the terrible wallpaper to the good room dimensions. Trusting the process means seeing differently: an article that is only 8 pages long in draft, but that has a good hook and some clear sections that are defining themselves is just a matter of filling it in and refining–you can see this in the same way you can see that the plumbing rough-ins running inside a framed wall are going to give enough room for two people to brush their teeth at the same time. Alternatively, see through terrible wallpaper when you’re house hunting is like seeing past the overuse of semicolons or the run-on sentences or the 1000 words over the limit to know that some judicious application of hot water and vinegar and elbow grease will reveal the good underneath.

I can totally picture it.

This is part of what’s interesting for me about watching reno shows, or sometimes real estate shows: the reason people hire designers and agents is because most people can’t see the potential, can’t see past the wallpaper, can’t figure out what ‘after’ might be possible from a particular ‘before.’ Or they can’t deal with the noise and the confusion and the tools and the mess. And in reno shows, particularly, people demonstrate themselves completely flummoxed by the ‘during’–that’s where the drama comes from.

It’s really a lot like writing. And as writers, we ought to gain the expertise, if you will, of the contractors, and agents, and designers: to see the potential, to learn the process, to leap imaginatively from before to after, while staying steady through the turbulence of during.