Infinite Iterations, or, Writing About Writing
Because I've even got two different versions of this title.
This isn’t my first version of this essay.
Often, my drafts are just the same thing over and over: a single point stated a hundred different ways. When I catch myself doing this, instead of cutting, my pattern has been to start all over again—creating multiple, slightly varying versions of the same piece, until I settle upon a draft I like. This is not a technique, it’s a trap, but like all shadows, it also has something to teach me.
When I write, I do infinite iterations, just as in life, where we do the same thing over and over again. We change our geographies, careers, partners, friends, and circumstances, but we’re really just playing out the patterns of our ancestral lineage, making slight variations each time. Hopefully we learn something each time around, and can adjust the repetitions that aren’t serving us, finally settling upon a version we like. Because the most maddening thing is seeing that you’re stuck in a groove, yet being unable to jump to the next track.
I was writing the same thing over and over, but didn’t know what I was trying to say.
I decided to turn to the experts, consulting my mentor and dusting off my Strunk and White. I also stumbled upon Stephen King’s autobiographical masterclass On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. While I’ve been never read one of his novels (the genre’s not for me), this book was a revelation, and I highlighted, underlined, and drew a box around this phrase:
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
Truer words were never spoken, at least when it comes to my bad writing. He goes on:
“If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild. … If, however, one is working under deadline, that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the need to grab [a shortcut] for the same reason. Just remember before you do, though, that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.
You probably do know what you’re talking about. … Good writing is about letting go of fear. … It’s also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
This concept can be harder than it sounds, however. Learning to choose the right tools for the job is one of my biggest obstacles, whether it’s in creativity, career, healing, or relationships. Instead, as my mentor has told me, I tend to “loot the hardware store,” trying to do and be and say everything.
My intense and thorough nature can come in handy, but like most gifts, it can also be a curse. Whether it’s a paragraph, a pitch, or a relationship, I will run that fucker into the ground until it’s nothing but a twitching, pulverized remnant of its former self, arms where its head should be, legs twisted at impossible angles. I will exhaust every topic, explain every side, break up and get back together, conduct elaborate rituals to resurrect it, and sometimes it works, but usually, I just have to walk away and start over.
This happened recently, and it wasn’t even a new piece, it was simply an expansion of one that had already been approved, yet I spent 10 hours writing and rewriting the thing, and by the time my deadline rolled around, I couldn’t even tell if it was good anymore. It was, I discovered when I read it a week later—but the first version was probably fine, too. It usually is.
When I infinitely iterate, I've learned, it means I’ve forgotten what I was trying to accomplish in the first place—or that I never really knew.
Usually, the solution is to surrender. To stop and think. To walk away and come back with a clear head. I am learning to trust the writing process; the healing process; the processes by which atoms and molecules move and react. But this kind of trust requires faith, and faith can be a tricky thing.
Over-explaining, King and my mentor both say, means you’re afraid readers won’t believe you, because you don’t believe yourself. My own crippling self-doubt is propelled by a continuous loop of negative self-talk, some of which comes from ancestral trauma. But it’s also inherited from American culture. In this capitalist society, worth is based on productivity, and the patriarchal structure tells people born into female bodies (and other underrepresented people) that their stories don’t matter; that they have no authority to speak.
Like all capitalist economies, the American system relies on unpaid work, but caring for children or cooking the meals—roles that women have traditionally assumed, willingly or not—doesn’t directly contribute to capital, so it’s not factored into GDP. Since capital is the only thing with value, women’s worth has been disregarded, and this devaluing has followed people with my biology wherever we go.
One of the most glaring examples of this comes from Jane Nickerson, food editor for The New York Times in the 1950s and the founder of modern food journalism—an accomplishment attributed, by most historical accounts, to Craig Claiborne, whom Nickerson herself introduced to the world. In fact, the immersive, experiential style of journalism most celebrated today was shaped by female editors and writers at the Times, Washington Post, and countless local newspapers who assumed roles vacated by men during World War II.
They were assigned to the “women’s pages”: a section of the newspaper that focused on food, arts, culture, and society. Now constituting a multi-billion dollar industry, these sections weren’t originally considered standard coverage. The female journalists reported from the front lines of the civil rights movements and broke stories of national importance from the private parties of public officials.
These women breathed life into the dry, factual accounts of their male predecessors, taking a technical craft and making it an art. They “surrounded a story,” as current Post editor and former “women’s pages” Style editor Judith Martin recalls, adding the rich, vivid detail that animates a scene. They didn’t just tell you what happened, they showed you. You tasted that home-baked bread; you saw the protest rolling through the streets. You heard that State Department official whose wine-plied lips loosed national secrets at the end of the party, when he thought nobody of real importance was listening, later lamenting, as Martin reports, “How was I to know that girl was a reporter?”
But then the war ended, and the men returned to their jobs, and the women were expected to return to their kitchens. Many remained at the newspapers, but male journalists largely commandeered all they had worked to create. In one of America’s favorite iterations, the patriarchy assumed control, and in their hands, arts, food, and culture media became a bloated, toxic behemoth—spawning equally infinite meta-iterations of toxic culture and scandal.
Indeed, none of our most powerful industries would exist today, and none of the cis-het, white male leaders would be where they are without the extracted toil of underrepresented people. Yet we are continually told that the reason we aren’t successful is because there’s something wrong with us, or we haven’t worked hard enough, and so of course we don’t believe ourselves or trust the process. Of course we repeat the same patterns over and over, waiting for someone else to give us permission to speak.
This essay isn’t perfect; maybe it isn’t even good. I could easily make a copy and start all over again. I could send it to multiple colleagues for their input before putting it out into the world. But sometimes you just have to trust that you know what you’re trying to say, and that what you’ve created is good enough.
The same groove will never play a different track, and sitting soaked in the shame of your stuckness will never yield new results. You can chip away at that barrier in front of you. Odds are, you’ve already got the right tool for the job.
You don’t need a whole hardware store. You don’t even need a work order. So start hammering.