Learning to Trust the Circular Nature of Writing

Kimberly Lew is a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I was younger, I loved arts and crafts but was low on patience. I had a lot of creativity and maybe some artistic talent, but I needed instant gratification. If I did a sketch, I expected it to look exactly the way I wanted it the first time around — I was not a fan of erasers. When learning to sew, I expected to turn around ready-to-wear garments and accessories. There were many lopsided purses and pillowcases I insisted on using because I couldn’t admit that I needed to practice my stitching or measure my materials a little more carefully.

Writing was a nice outlet for me, especially in school. I used to love being able to write something during journal time and volunteer to read it out loud, getting to see my classmates’ reactions to my stories and ideas. Then, when all was said and done, I could close the journal and move on to the next thing.

But the more I started to learn about creative writing, the more I realized how important the revision process was. It was tricky to be able to filter through the noise of feedback, to tiptoe along the line between my original vision and the advice of others. As I started wanting to work on longer projects, the idea of how long of a journey it can be to see something through, all so it might just sit in a drawer or on a hard drive, became incredibly daunting. I stopped writing for a while, because it didn’t feel productive when there wasn’t necessarily a visible finish line — or anything else that would give me the same feeling as seeing my classmates respond to my work.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the lack of writing was still a part of the writing process. In the first long break I took from writing with any kind of frequency, I traveled, living in Georgia, then California, then studying abroad in London. I reconnected with family that I hadn’t been able to spend time with. I got my first job and made my own money for the first time. By the time I started writing again, inspired by a writing course I took in London to help fill out my class schedule, I had a lot more life experience to draw from, a lot of new perspectives of the world to explore. Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of different phases where I’ve come in and out of writing, and I’ve learned that those times can be as important as the ones where I’m fully committed.

I used to believe that writing was a linear journey; that you had an idea and then you put that idea onto paper and then you tightened that idea through editing and then you got that idea published. There were two finite points, a beginning and an end, for every project, and to take stock of one’s work would be to lay out every line, sorting them into two piles: those were that complete and those that still needed to be finished.

Over time, I’ve come to see that writing can be more like intersecting circles. Every piece can be a representation of a particular moment, while intersecting with different stories at different times. And every circle, while complete in its own right, does not exist in isolation.

One of my most prized pieces I’ve ever had published is an essay about my grandfather. It was born out of a short piece I wrote when I visited him one summer, basically a journal entry scrawled on loose-leaf paper as I tried to come to terms with my feelings about his living with Alzheimer’s. It lived in a purse for a year and then eventually became the inspiration for an essay I wanted to submit to Longreads, which was not accepted, and then shortened to send into Modern Love, where it was also rejected. The piece was sent to a few other places before I set it aside completely for a few years. 

When I finally resurrected it, a lot of things had changed. I had written a full-length play inspired by my grandpa and Alzheimer’s that had a reading in New York City, and I had sadly lost my grandpa more recently. Using this piece that I had revisited every so often over many years, I wrote a new personal essay that reflected new discoveries and experiences. Eventually, that piece found a home where it was edited and published, and I completed one of many circles that got a passion project where I needed it to be.

While treating writing like a discipline is important, I’ve also found that sometimes an idea needs time to develop — and even if you put it on a shelf, it has a tendency to come back around. Sometimes bigger works require multiple versions, lots of notes and revision, and research. Sometimes the darlings we’re told to kill have a second life as an important puzzle piece or totally new thing. Sometimes a piece doesn’t make sense until you have the life experience to understand other people’s critiques.

Learning this has allowed me to put less pressure on my writing. I used to get worried — especially when I wrote something I was immensely proud of — that I might never feel so inspired again. But time always helps, and I keep getting the opportunity to look at the body of my work and all its many circles, making new connections and rearranging them into new configurations. As long as I want to write, I not only have the potential to create something new, but also a whole foundation to build on to get to the next thing.

Now, if I get into the weeds of a project and find that it’s not working, I don’t feel pressure to mold it into something it’s not or to feel the need to salvage it out of pride. Instead, sometimes I step back and tell myself that I’m completing the circle for now, that I can let go. Maybe there will be a chance to revisit it in the future — to pull it out of a drawer or a hard drive and reacquaint ourselves, like old friends.

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