Somewhere in between the excitement of the beginning and the glamour of the finish line lies the murky messy middle.
A term used by writers to refer to the middle part of a book where it can difficult to sustain momentum, I wrote this post during Melbourne’s interminable lockdown in 2020. Read the full post for tips to make it through the Messy Middle, what it is, and how to survive and thrive, finishing whatever creative project it is that you’re doing.

The Messy Middle of 2020

I hit the messy middle of the pandemic this week. In many ways it’s similar to the messy middle of writing a manuscript. Thankfully I’ve survived the latter so it’s given me tools and techniques to use while living through what feels like a never-ending year.

But first, I want to say that I’ve found the pandemic good in some ways and scary in many others and bad and wearing and worrying and all sorts of things in between, but it wasn’t until this week that I really felt the loss and devastation that really comes when you realise things will never ever be the same again.

I was talking to a dear friend in France (and I’m acutely aware that having the internet to communicate with loved ones is a huge blessing, but technology can’t replace hugs!) – and I realised I have always kept France as my ‘escape plan’ from Australia. When our macho footy culture gets too much I’ve always kept that secret dream in my pocket to plan for and return to: that I could move to France for 3 months or 6, that I could visit each year, at least, and keep that part of myself alive.

But honestly, I just can’t see when we will be able to travel anymore. It’s not just whether or not we’re allowed – I don’t know if or when I will WANT to travel again. I can’t ‘unsee’ those images of the devastation in Italy, the makeshift morgues in Central Park, and the awareness that Australians overseas are unable to return to the safety of home. We are truly in a completely new world – the Special World of this particular dilemma that is living through a global pandemic. And that means that there’s no returning to how things were before. I’m sad not just for what isn’t possible right now, but what I don’t think will be possible again. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fly in an international flight, sharing the same air as hundreds of passengers, and not be anxious on some level about catching this airborne virus.
Living in Australia means that everywhere else is hours or even a day in a plane away. I truly don’t know if and when we will travel again.

The messy middle is usually before the midpoint reversal

This is month 4 of lockdown in my city, and it’s wearing, to say the least. I can’t drive anywhere, we aren’t supposed to even leave our suburb, and if you go for a walk without a giant piece of cloth covering half your face, you get a fine.

I miss weird things – impromptu café trips. The library. The movies. Walking without a face mask. Patting strangers’ dogs and not worrying about offending them. Walking along the beach (leaving our suburb is forbidden right now). But it’s forcing me to look for new meaning, to change my priorities, to completely change where I ‘thought’ I was headed. Much like the protagonist midway through the middle of the second Act (and the writer who writes them!). There’s something about the middle of the manuscript that makes you feel a little like you’re driving blind. You can’t see the end.
But herein lies the key to the solution…

What is the messy middle?

The messy middle is a writing term authors use for that part of the book in between the first act, when you’re all fired-up on a steam of momentum and ambition, and the final act, when you have the hardest part behind you and you’re neatly ‘wrapping up’ the writing.

The messy middle is that spot in the middle that’s like an endless plane or plateau, and you can’t see forward or back.

It’s when you’re most likely to quit, and it’s when you likely start to hate the drafting process.

But the thing is – this pandemic ain’t going anywhere soon. We can’t quit it – we have no choice. But the choices we do have are how we keep going, and what resources we draw upon, and the decisions we make every day, to survive.

  • I liked this article that was published during the first lockdown in the US – it’s about grief and the pandemic. You might like it, too. Kessler has some interesting thoughts on grief and there is actually a fourth stage he refers to in his book which is all about “creating meaning”. This is so similar to what we do in the writing process – when we can’t see why certain things happened, we create meaning around them. The key is to be intentional and create a meaning that serves you and your life…
Tips for the messy middle

In the messy middle of my manuscript drafts, I’ve tried a few things to both help me move forward and to feel better during the process. I also developed a framework I recently taught in a zoom retreat to 90 Day Memoir students, which you can sneak a peek at to the right.

  • Write your ideal ending – this is a seriously empowering thing to do. For your manuscript, it will help you work backwards, but in life (like in a pandemic!), it can help you reframe what you’re going through in terms of a best possible outcome
  • Make new meaning from this ‘highway blindness’ – see below
  • Stick to a routine. This is why in 90 Day Memoir I say you should stick to a daily or weekly writing quota. It’s so easy to lose hope and momentum when you go too long between picking up the draft. And the sooner you write your way through that mess, the sooner you will see the other side.
  • Do whatever you can to feel better – and don’t judge whatever that is. Studies show our willpower is finite. So, you can imagine the willpower and discipline it’s taken to stay locked indoors and wear a stifling face mask outside and not kill our partners while in lockdown (!) and get out of bed when the world is uncertain suddenly takes on a huge heaviness that it never used to.
  • When your fall-backs are gone (for me it’s the movies, nature, driving to the ocean and looking at the sea, visiting friends), get creative to try and think of alternative for healthy ways to release and express the energy. I’ve been having dance-offs, huge cries (no judgement!) watching lots more Netflix than usual, and eating more chocolate than I really should, too. That’s OK. I’m living through a pandemic.
  • If you’re doing anything difficult, it’s normal to feel tired, and also to process a lot while you’re sleeping. I always had such intense dreams when I was writing my books, and now during the pandemic they’re huge and significant, too. Get up and go somewhere to write it all down and savour that first coffee of the day in silence.

“Write what should not be forgotten”
Isabel Allende

The only way out is through

I can’t see when this will end for us – it will be at least 6 months, maybe 12. The world is going through waves and relapses, waves and breaks. Until there’s a vaccine, we’re looking at lockdown life on-and-off for the near future. But how could that be OK?

I guess I’m saying it’s OK for things to take longer than usual, for you to be more tired than usual. There was a beautiful piece in the New Yorker a few months ago, when the US was in its first lockdown (I’m sorry to say, I think the second one isn’t far) and it was all about how the collective feeling is actually grief. It’s normal to grieve the loss of normal everyday life. For me, I miss life before all these intense choices: do I go for a run or do I stay home? For parents – it’s even worse. Do I send my child to school (where they could catch a deadly virus) or do I keep them at home where I am going insane? Do I go to the supermarket or do I stay home because someone might have touched something?

The intensity is exhausting. It’s normal to need more sleep (in a pandemic AND when you’re writing a memoir!).

Creating meaning and the midpoint reversal

Something I discovered about the messy middle of book drafts may also help you in your messy middle of the pandemic. The midpoint reversal is a part of the story that ‘breaks up’ the monotony of the second act.
It often comes when the hero changes goals or values (or stops chasing the “conscious” desire and moves towards the “unconscious” desire.)
In life, this often happens with more subtlety – we wake up one day and realise we don’t have the same priorities that we did, before. But lots of things have led to that point. It’s the same with the messy middle. If you think of yourself as the heroine of the story of this pandemic, one day you will wake up and realise this is working for you, not against you. And that’s when you move into the final Act, where you integrate the lessons of this story.

But it’s not until you have that shift in perspective, in priorities, the breakdown (battle to the death, in the hero’s journey) that you get to that point.

Like a musical score, this antagonism goes up and down for awhile until you most definitely can’t go back to who you were before.

And that’s when you move into the final act – where you can move towards the elixir.

In summary

Keep writing. The most powerful thing about memoir writing, for me, is that we get to create and craft the meaning we make from situations and experiences. You might think this is boring, interminable, frustrating, overwhelming, and confusing, but one day you’ll look back on the things you lived through and feel proud and inspired and see how you truly were the hero of an incredible story.
Keep writing it all down.