Writing is like trying to take a decent picture of the sunset on an iPhone. The colors never come out as beautiful as your brain interprets them.
Writing is like cracking pistachio nuts and then dropping them into a box. The pistachios are words, and the box is your novel. You can't see the progress you're making because the box is opaque. You crack open a nut, discard the shells, and drop the little green kernel into the darkness, hoping it's enough. The only way to know how far you've gotten is to pick up the box and shake it, to hear the satisfying rattle, to feel the weight. But actually see your progress? Harder than it seems.
Lately I've been feeling jealous of visual artists. Not because I wish I was better at art (though sometimes I do) but because their progress is so obvious. From a blank canvas, an image emerges. The pieces of a quilt come together, square by square. A sweater is birthed from the apex of two knitting needles. The results of this kind of effort are tangible: you can touch them, see them.
Writing a novel is different. It feels transient. Your progress is marked by pages and word counts, by how long it takes you to scroll. When I open my word document, I don't immediately get a sense of how far I've come, or of how far I need to go. All I see are the last few paragraphs and a little blinking cursor. It's the same no matter where I am in the process, which makes it feel like I'm starting from the same place, every single time.
I suppose it was different before computers. When you pulled a finished page out of your typewriter and placed it on the stack of pages that came before it: physical, tangible proof of something that was once in your brain. I like the idea of this, but the truth is, I've tried writing big projects on typewriters, and the form is too rigid for me. I can barely get through one page before I'm dying to change something and frustrated that I can't.
In a lot of ways I love how mutable writing on screens is. I can sit down and put whatever is in my brain on "paper", knowing that it is instantly changeable whenever I feel like it. It's freeing. I can tell my inner-critic to take a seat and not interrupt until I tell her it's okay to do so. On the page, anything can happen, and if I don't like it, no big deal. One click, and its gone.
The flip side of that coin, though, is that something so changeable is hard to hold onto. A novel in itself is hard to picture all at once, while if I asked you to visualize a painting you could do it, no problem. I feel as though I'm trying to hold water in my hands but it keeps slipping through my fingers. I want to be able to hold something up, to say, "Look what I'm making. Look how far I've come." But all I have are word counts. All I have are page numbers. They work as markers, as flags. But they don't feel substantial. You can't glance at them and see the whole picture.
Instead, I just catch glimmers. A shape appears out of the fog. I hit milestones, and compare them to things I can visualize more easily. For instance, I recently passed 50,000 words, which is about the length of The Great Gatsby. When I don't have a good frame of reference, I try to make time the thing I can measure. I've been logging my writing using a time tracking app. There at least I can see how much of my day goes to this thing, this growing, changing thing that is impossible to see.
Most of the things I want to make are intangible. Things like novels (which will hopefully be book-shaped one day, but probably won't be for a long time) and podcasts and blog posts. It's been plaguing me because I want to share my progress, to have something to show for my efforts, but all I have are these words and pixels.
And so, I build my days around them. I carve out the time and record and measure and make due with flags and markers. When my first draft is done (and it will be soon, I hope) I will print the entire thing out (warts and all) and hold it in my hands. I've always imagined myself lugging a manuscript around with me to coffee shops, marking it up in different colored pens, but honestly I'm not sure that's the fate for this project. This feels almost like a practice round, like the challenge I cut my teeth on. I may come back to it, I may not. Either way, I'll have it. Physical proof of something I made. And that will make all the guesswork worthwhile.
Until then, I'll just keep dropping pistachios into the box.