The Five Stages of Grief for Writers

One year ago, I set out to write a novel.  I have to admit that I was a bit naive about the whole process.  Actually, I’m still pretty naive about it.  This is the first time I’ve been able to complete a draft, to actually create a coherent plot.  It was a rush, a whirlwind of creative energy.

And then I finished it–the writing part, that is.  I had one blissful week of celebrating all that I had accomplished.  And then reality set in.

Now I had to revise it.

At first, it didn’t seem too terrifying of a task.  But as I began to reread my material, I noticed that it had lost some of the glossy sheen that blinded me during the writing stage.  Sentences that seemed brilliant were no longer quite so ingenious after all.  Dialogue that felt raw and edgy now sounded awkward.  This wasn’t just true of one paragraph or page or chapter.  No, my friends.

It was true of the whole darn manuscript.

I had plunged into what I now recognize as a particular kind of mourning: writer’s grief.  The feeling of loss that comes when you plummet violently from the existential high of writing into the brutal reality of editing.  And so I, like many others who have experienced losses, have found Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief to be particularly helpful tools in recognizing where I am and in moving forward in this process.  I have adapted them below.  Enjoy.

1. Denial

You refuse to accept the fact that your work, in part or in whole, might actually suck.  You’re too busy mentally rehearsing your future author interview on NPR (guilty) to acknowledge that your first draft may not, in fact, be flawless.

Reality check:  it’s totally normal to have a terrible first draft.  At least, I hope it is.  Living in denial isn’t going to change that.  It’s painful–really painful–to go ahead and recognize that your work is less-than-perfect.  But it gets easier as you go.  I promise.

2. Anger

This can be self-directed or others-directed.  Even the gentlest feedback can ignite a fire of fury within you.  There’s a simple explanation for this: you’re still not thinking rationally about your work.  Rather than denying its problems, however, in this stage you grow defensive.

It’s easier to completely ignore what someone is saying rather than to set emotions aside so you can examine its merit.  But it’s so worth it to push past the frustration and accept critiques and advice from others.  It really does lead to a better story.

3. Bargaining

The “tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take this piece out if that means I can leave this one in” sales pitch.  Only you’re pitching to yourself, and what you’re selling is a lie.  You can’t bargain your way into creating a decent work of art.  If something doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t add depth to your characters or further your story line, it’s got to go.  Period.

It’s true what they say about “killing your darlings.”  I’m a terrible murderer of sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and pages.  But it’s got to be done.  Yes, the awful deed must be done.  (Sigh.)

4. Depression

This is the real low point of writer’s grief.  You start to feel as if you are utterly incapable of creating a decent piece of writing.  You feel like writing, and editing, is a total waste of time.  In this stage, you’ve swung so far to the other end of the spectrum from where you started that you no longer see any redeemable qualities in your work.  That’s a real bummer.

I have spent a fair amount of time languishing in the depression stage.  It sure isn’t fun.  These are the moments, more than any other, when I am most in danger of giving up.  But I don’t think anyone should end the editing process when they’re in a low place.  Stopping here means accepting defeat.  Now, would the super-cool, heroic characters in your story be so willing to do the same?  I didn’t think so.

5. Acceptance

Finally.  You’ve reached the moment where you can look at your work in a balanced way.  You can acknowledge it has weaknesses just as you can pride yourself in its strengths.  You realize that, while far from perfect, your writing carries with it a uniqueness that no one else can match, a special trademark all your own.  And that in itself is reason enough to keep moving forward.