How the Sausage Gets Made

Friday, October 16, 2015 - 7:01am
Photo by Peng Zhang
The New Better Off

How the Sausage Gets Made

Last week, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

Social media is a notoriously difficult place to express any of the hard, nuanced stuff in life, but I'd like to try: I've written or edited or collaborated on five books. I'm in the final two weeks of my sixth. So you might look at those numbers and think, "Courtney seems to be effective at doing this book writing thing. She must have something figured out." You might be right. I might have something figured out. But that doesn't mean that it's not really, f-ing hard. I'm currently having fried chicken emergencies (thank goodness for Bake Sale Bettys and my honey) and losing control of my inbox and getting tough love feedback from trusted friends and battling back all the voices in my head that tell me that it was really dumb to try to write a "big idea book" when I have an almost 2-year-old (that those are for tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities who can safely dot all the i's and cross all the t's and learn macroeconomics etc.). I'm pretty sure the manuscript is super uneven. I'm pretty sure I'm falling short in all kinds of important ways. But I want to read "big idea books" (and see films and hear music and...and...) from people who aren't tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities, and people who worry about the impact of what they're saying and their own blind spots, so I'm going to keep writing and send an imperfect manuscript to my editor on October 15th. I want you to know that. In case you want to do something imperfect, too. I'm your eager audience, fried chicken and sticky-faced 2-year-old in tow.

What I meant to just be a sort of #realtalk blip in the steady stream of delicious meals and beautiful family portraits that one usually finds in a Facebook feed got a response that shocked me. Nearly 400 people liked it and another 91 people commented. Numbers are my least favorite form of measurement, in most cases, but, for this one, I found it fascinating that so many people were compelled to respond. It got me thinking: What is it about what I expressed that so resonated with people? Surely, in part, people are just kind and wanted to be supportive to me in a challenging moment. Thanks everyone!

There is something else here. I think it’s about the way that we so often shroud the creation of things — books, businesses, babies — in mystery. We go public when the website looks perfect, when the book has its endorsements and its authoritative author photo, when the baby has arrived, safe and sound and wrinkly. But that’s not life. That’s respectability.

Life is all the stuff that happens before those things. Life is the messy process, full of self-doubt and false starts, desperate phone calls to friends, rejection and distraction and resilience. Life is burnt toast. Life is a crying baby. Life is a credit card decline. Life is the investor that looks at you like you’re speaking a foreign language. Or worse, doesn’t look at you at all, but checks his phone every two seconds to send a clear message that you’re not his priority.

Life is a pregnancy test that breaks your heart. Life is essays that never get published. Life is miscarriage. Life is 2 a.m., the neighbor’s dog barking incessantly, anxiety filling your bedroom like a noxious gas. Life is realizing you had salad in your teeth all day. Life is seething with jealousy when you see a piece of art that you wish you had painted. Life is actually fooling yourself into thinking that none of these things happen to anyone else on a regular basis except for you.

The only thing that allows a book, much less a business or a baby, to come into existence, is for the people mired in that invisible muck of creation to hold on to some shred of belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile. That’s really, really hard, especially if you don’t look like the people that usually start businesses or write books. It’s also hard if you’ve never been up close to anyone doing these things. You simply assume that the product is the process, that the person who created that website or book had some very logical, linear way of getting it out into the world, a way that you — in your infinite foibles and messy schedule — couldn’t possibly replicate, and thus, you probably shouldn’t try in the first place.

The hypothetical author in my head has a drawer with files in it. Each one is clearly labeled with the chapters she is working on, which didn’t change from day one to day 365, when she (of course) finished her book right on time. She works on one chapter at a time — reading everything there is to read on the topic, taking copious, well-organized notes and coming up with a huge list of all the experts she wants to interview and people she wants to profile, culling it down through methodical deliberation. She does many, many interviews in perfectly quiet settings and asks all the right questions, transcribing each interview in full, looking over them many times to pick out the best bits, then plugging those into her very well made outline. The narrative unfolds seamlessly. She moves on to the next chapter. It all happens according to a timeline she set for herself in the beginning. She is very good at sticking to her own self-imposed deadlines.

Are you this woman?

If you are, don’t tell me. I’m starting to become convinced that she’s a fiction. And it’s helping me come out about my own process, which looks nothing like this. I write on my iPhone on BART in strange fragments with exclamation points that I later have a hard time discerning. What was I so excited about? I interview people while my daughter is waging a nap protest at full volume and hope they don’t hear; I usually fall in love with them so I have trouble writing with any distance. I read voraciously, but haphazardly, leaving books on airplanes, stopping after the introduction if it doesn’t grab me. I skip around from chapter to chapter as inspiration strikes. Sometimes I look back at what I’ve written and I’m truly, justifiably embarrassed. Sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes I feel like someone else wrote it. I’m convinced, quite frequently, that everything worth saying has already been said.

I say it anyway. I write anyway. I just cling to that little rope of faith that what I’m doing matters, in part because I’m doing it. I might be the source of all this imperfection, but I’m also the only me that there ever is, was, and will be. So there’s that.

That’s true of you, too. So please, please don’t let the fictional person doing whatever you’re trying to do in a much more orderly, bulletproof way stop you from making a go of it. You’re all we’ve got. Anne Lamott, as usual, says it best:

Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived...Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



Thank you, Courtney Martin, for so bravely and honestly exposing the soft underbelly of the creative process.

So perfectly expressed. Thank you! My heart is so happy from this, you made me laugh and cry at the same time.

Courtney, a friend shared your post, and I was intrigued. I'm way past the baby-making, child-caring years of my life but I love to write. I'm just reluctant as any young writer to send out poems and manuscripts for fear of not "getting it right." I appreciate your writing and will share this post with lots of people I know and love. Stay with your book!

Yes, Yes, Yes! To all the things, YES!
I am also a mother, wife, homemaker, teacher, writer, creator, volunteer. My creative process is messy and haphazard and completely embedded in the flow of my life AND I got out of academia, because, as a system, it doesn't support the kind of creative living I know is authentic to who I am. I do read books by academics, but prefer to read books by people like you, who have chosen to live outside the ivory towers. Cheering you on, all the way!

I am in the final stages of publishing my first novel at the age of 70. It has been in process for more than two years and the seed of this story has been germinating slowly over the past twenty years (!) I have flip-flopped back and forth between thinking what I am writing is really good and the belief that it is only a piece of crap no one will want to read. Fortunately, the first feeling won and I pushed through. And yes - my desk, studio, and my entire house are a mess! I can totally relate. Wish me luck.

That's wonderful Cary! At 65, I'm trying to muster up the confidence to go further forward in my writing efforts that I've ever gone before. I've written quite a bit on two projects that I'm doing the same "love it-hate it" dance with, and I'd love to hear more about how you've gotten beyond that to reach the point you have. Wishing you all the best with your work!

That is so cool, Cary! Congratulations!

Courtney, this is great! Reading this as a nurse, a mother of a now grown son, wife, household organizer, extended family case manager, etc, etc, I cling to your reassurances that the messiness of life is essential to our creative processes. Thank you!

Thanks HEAVENS you wrote this! I am in the middle of trying to finish an important art piece on a deadline, amidst a hole/"building project" in our back yard, shuttling teenager to dance classes six days a week while waiting for the test that will tell us if she has mono and figuring out college pplications, a friend being possibly taken off life support, and a rather-more-than-part-time day job. I thought that if I only had it more "together" I'd be able to focus and finish - and now I see that I CAN focus and CAN finish, but not in the "perfect world" sort of scenario which was the only way I thought I could succeed. Thank you for speaking truth!

Wow, humbled by all you have going on.

You got this.

yes yes. I agree with all of the above, well said and thank you for being honest about your process.

I do think, however, that sometimes the reason that we prefer not to see other people's "messiness" is because we are not ourselves equipped to take it on. We have our own messes to wade through. And just like a perfect sunset or a perfectly natural mountain view, can make us feel instantly serene and full of wonder, sometimes we just want to relish the beauty of something simple. Like a finished product.

Great point, Ria! It's a real pleasure to witness a piece of art when it's in its beautiful, final form, and sometimes that's what we crave--very different from our own messy lives. Nevertheless, we should support one another by not pretending those final forms come easy.

I am, at this very moment, finishing an article due in three weeks. I am at that stage where I've been procrastinating for months, feeling frozen. Thank you for this post -- it reminded me that my process is my own, that I'm allowed to be messy, and that I am a valid creator. Much love!

The last paragraph written by Anne Lamott came from which of her books? Begins with "Clutter and mess....."

Annie Parsons's picture

Hi Charlotte — that quote comes from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Hope you can check it out!

Oh my gosh! Yes!! Writing is already so solitary; it's nice to know that I'm not the only one hip-deep in the mire that's life. #18gooddays

Proud to be among the hundreds who are cheering you on through all the mess, Courtney. I happen to love sausage, and I've made my share of it --literally--on butcher day. But also figuratively, as part of every creative endeavor I've been part of. The best sausage, of course, is "whole hog." Give it everything you've got. I know it will be wonderful.

Courtney- thanks for sharing your process. With my "day job" being a preschool and special needs teacher (with no children of my own), I've come to appreciate those non-writing moments as an endless source of not only inspiration, but as a treasure chest of valuable gems to be used for future writings. Young children truly live in the "NOW," so it has been my experience that the more I can match and embrace those ever-present "Aha! moments," the more enriched my writing becomes.

My experience, exactly. Thanks for the work you do, Dave.

I'm a firm believer in fearlessly honoring one's gifts. Two of my faves just happen to be working/connecting with those less fortunate, and writing! I recently combined both by penning a short screenplay on the topic of Autism for an interesting TV web-series titled, -- it appears in Season 1 and the piece is titled, "Everyone Knew."

The timing on his couldn't have been more ideal. I have taken myself away for a month to exercise my writing muscles, get back in the habit after going quiet for ten years. I knew I didn't have a novel in me, never have. But I have put a lot of pressure on myself to produce. And every day that I do little more than a short memoir or journal piece, I beat myself up, cursing my lack of discipline.
Until October 15, same day you wrote this, when I came to the realization that I am not a Writer with a capital W. I am a very good writer, but I am not an artist, I am a craftsperson. So give me an assignment or an issue that's under my skin, and I can bang out 1000 words in no time. But ask me to create from scratch, to come up with a fiction or even a truth, half-baked, and I can't. It's like playing the piano by ear or reading music. There is a huge difference between being a journalist and being a writer. I can illuminate any situation for you, I can describe to a T any person or event. But i can't CREATE those events and people. I am a sponge not a paintbrush. I know how to draw a picture, but it has to be of something I can see, taste, touch, smell. You can only usually do one or the other, terrified by the unfamiliar one.
Anyway, your column was a confirmation that it's ok to accept ones limitations at the same time as ones gifts. And guess what? I don't feel bad about this. I think, in a way, it's a huge revelation. And I can relax now and do what I do best and not try to be someone I'm not. And that life is messy and unpredictable and being buoyant amidst the waves is the key.
This is what my wise 22-year-old son said to me:
"if you're happy, I'm happy; if you're relieved, so am I. I think you're very smart, and in no way less smart than a fiction writer -- it's possible to have different aptitudes, and rather than poo pooing them, you can celebrate them. Life isn't about pride; it's about satisfaction. Find things that satisfy you, and do those things, rather than thinking about what makes you proud or others proud of you. The pope had some saying recently: "dare to be happy." Just being satisfied is an accomplishment enough, because satisfaction can be so hard to find."

oh Megan, thank you SO much for this. It can be so hard to hear and honor the inner voices sometimes, to accept who I really am as I push myself against all sorts of walls. Your words and those of your son give me so much strength! Blessings!

Perfect timing as I'm working through my mess. Thank you Courtney for sharing your imperfect (yet perfect) self!

I love that you're saying all this aloud--the fiction of the perfect author, falling in love with your interviewees, only one you. I'm thrilled to see the necessary dismantling of notions that hold regular folks like me back from breaking into fuller creative bloom. Thank you for your work and please keep writing.

I've been struggling mightily with my personal writing (I'm a corporate blogger, so some writing inevitably gets done) for quite some time now, and I think it's because I have a subconscious but strong belief that the process should be neat, perfect, linear, and make sense. It's never been that way, but I wait for it and expect it and sit, verbally constipated, day after day. Your essay is helping me quash that ridiculous belief, so thank you for that. Thank you for your honesty.

Thank you so much for this post. I seriously struggle with many of these things as I conduct my dissertation research in conservation biology, and I found your post so encouraging.

Your piece is just the breath I needed to keep showing up to my own intensely demanding life. Cheers to fried chicken and writing on a smartphone....I feel affirmed! Thank you Courtney!

I always begin in the middle in a muddle.

i would love to write books that peolple would read

Thank you Courtney for this perfect piece!

As a recovering perfectionist myself, I can't tell you how inspiring it is to see that a REAL WRITER - the kind I admire and fantasize about becoming when I grow up - expressing the insanely human process of creation ... while it is happening.

I am reminded of the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn & Thich Nhat Hanh, "Full Catastrophe Living". It is enormously helpful to be reminded that to be alive - and to be alive IS to create - is to embrace the whole catastrophic mess. Not just the smooth, shiny, PR-ready parts. But to truly embrace all of it.

So many women who come to my coaching practice are insanely awesome, creative, competent and accomplished. We all just need someone to remind us - and that's what you've done here admirably - that we ARE doing it, that we ARE suiting up and showing up for life as it is presented, not as our FB page might have it.

Thanks Courtney! Please keep writing and telling it like it is.

Oh, my. Someone else is singing my song of the blues.
I don't have children, but I have a mate who paces the house and drives me crazy as I try to write two words on a page that make some sense.
Thanks for reminding me I'm not alone on this writing journey