Cultivating the Patient Mind

Patience is not my strong suit. I dislike tasks that are intricate, that require precision, that require sustained concentration. I get particularly cranky with projects that take a long time to complete.

This is, of course, why I’m a writer. Writing is the perfect training and testing ground for someone who needs to become more patient, and the universe, in its infinite wisdom, has given me the compulsion to write, so that I am forced on a regular basis to confront my weakness.

When I’m left to my own devices, my impulse is to write in the way that requires the least patience. I like to draft fast. I like to work too much, until I hurt myself, so I can get a story told as soon as possible and it doesn’t hang over my head. I don’t like to revise, and I particularly don’t like to revise carefully and thoroughly and in multiple layers until I’ve got things just right.

So writing is a constant battle for me between tearing through stuff at top speed and what I knows the writing needs, which is care and concentration and a willingness to go in and over and over and confront what I’ve got on the page.

The best way I know to force myself to be more patient is to make rules for myself. I stole my writing-process rules from Ruthie Knox. (I learn a lot from Ruthie, partly because she’s brilliant at what she does, and partly because she’s brilliant at explaining what she does, which not everybody is.) Ruthie uses a three-pass process for writing a new draft, in which she first lays down the sentences and paragraphs of the scene, then fills in what’s missing—all the blocking and emotion that got left out of the first pass—then smoothes out the words. It works well for me, because it forces me to slow down and pay attention. I can’t declare a scene finished simply because I’ve put the words on the page. I can’t declare a scene done until it’s good.

I’m revising a book now, and its biggest problem—often my biggest problem—is the beginning. So I rewrote the beginning, and then my Impatient Brain wanted us to be done. Like DONE done. And my new Patient Brain that I’m trying to encourage, the one that doesn’t let me get away with that stuff, had to explain that even though the beginning was the most messed up part, the whole book has to be revised so the new beginning fits with everything that comes after. Patient Brain explained to Impatient Brain that it’s just like writing one scene after another—each one needs three passes and it seems like it’s taking forever, but then you look at what you’ve produced and discover that you have one perfect scene after another, lined up to make a whole, entire novel. See, Impatient Brain? Patient Brain says. You can do this.

Samantha Hunter told me (wisely) that gardening and writing are a lot alike. I’ve been doing a lot of gardening since I got here, because I’m intrigued by the fact that things grow aggressively well in the area where I now live. I killed everything I tried to grow in the Boston area. Some of that was the sheer misery of the climate, but I believe patience was a problem there, as well.

A number of different people have told me that they don’t think you can garden until you turn forty (Which I haven’t. And never will.). You don’t have enough perspective. You don’t realize that it takes several seasons to establish something, or that a plant that starts small can grow and flourish and take over. You don’t realize that you have to cut back to grow perennials big, or that you have to tear down to a little stumpy bit to nurse a shrub back to health.

With any luck, my gardens will teach me more of what I need to know about cultivating words.