Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Writer's Block and Terms of Surrender



Asking a writer about writer’s block is like asking an alcoholic about hangovers. It’s an unpleasant side effect that comes with the territory and its main treatment is time. I compare writing to addiction because anyone who believes storytelling is not a choice, and I put myself in this category, but a need as fundamental as breathing oxygen, the threat of not being able to tell stories anymore is considered a way of death. I’m grateful writer’s block is rarely this dramatic or fatal because despite its causation, a halt in word-flow is temporary should the storyteller know when to surrender.

The flavor profile of writer’s block rivals Baskin-Robbins. Top-sellers include “I’m paying for a decision I made 100 pages ago,” “I’m stuck in the middle and don’t know what happens next,” and the plot alphabet variety: “I know A and C but I don’t know B.”

My particular flavor of writer’s block has always (so far) been the same: “Lots of ideas, little progress.” This happened most recently when I finished revising my first novel. After chin-ups and protein shakes my manuscript was in top shape, read cover to cover, and then cover to cover again, until satisfied, and for the first time in eighteen months I felt free to work on something different. I immediately turned to my affair for comfort. Lots of writers have them—the secret story kept hidden from the story you married first, a secret story one scribbles notes about instead of facing another night of loveless banter with chapter eleven. I kept the promise I had made to my secret story—that one day soon I’d leave my first novel for her—and fell into the new first paragraph of the secret story, a novel, I had fantasized about writing.

Then the flood came.

My mind swelled with characters’ personalities, hopes, fears, lessons, scraps of dialogue, new landscapes, all churning in random eddies of imagination. Over a year’s worth of suppressed ideas and story-bits addressed me as I showered, cooked dinner, walked the neighborhood, and “slept” in the night. My secret novel swept aside, the beginnings of five short stories precipitated out of the creative waters and this is where I got completely stuck. This is where my writer’s block begins.

I have several ideas, all promising, but I can’t seem to commit to one of them. In the past I’ve asked myself, which story do I want to write the most? But I never receive a clear answer because: 1. I am optimistic and wish to write them all, and 2. It doesn’t work that way. Deciding which story to write is rarely about satisfying my want, as this would imply I have a choice in the matter. I do not.

I jumped between the five short stories I had started. One would engage me for a morning, another for the afternoon, and then another for an entire week, then back to the first, onto the fourth story, the fifth. Several weeks passed but not the ache of not having written much of anything. I turned to the short story I’d spent the most time with because it had the most words on the page and seemed most likely to remedy the insatiable itch to just finish something. (I compare writing troubles to physical pain because it’s true. Something isn’t born without a little pain.)

I danced with this short story for the third or fourth time, I’d lost count, and reached a scene where the narrator meets a character who affects the trajectory of the narrator’s life. Each character sings a note in the story’s song, and their union formed a storytelling chord whose harmony I had heard before. Their performance was then followed by a light show, orchestrated by the single light bulb flashing inside my head.

It was this moment I became aware the short story I was writing was actually a pivotal scene in the life of a primary character from the novel I had been “seeing on the side”. Without trying I was working on my next novel, the secret story I easily swept aside when surrounded by new ideas.

Stepping back from the scene, I appreciated more than ever how stories have a life of their own. Born from experience and observation, stories reside in ethereal houses within the subconscious. They communicate with the conscious mind, to the storyteller, in the form of instinct and impulse.

From my pocket I retrieved a white handkerchief and waved it frantically. The story captured my full attention—I surrendered. I relinquished my weapons—the four remaining short stories—by placing them in the “Stories to Tell” folder on my computer. If another one of my ideas communicates with me, I will listen to it, too, and have my white handkerchief ready to display. In the meantime, I have a novel to write.

Now that enough time has passed so I may look back on it, I realized my experiences with writer’s block are not unpredictable clogs in my productivity pipeline, but are an essential part of my writing process. Although words are not adding up on the page, plenty of work is being done between my ears, my brain doing the heavy lifting that includes sorting ideas, word choices, and character traits in order to craft a story’s point as clearly as I can.

With this new insight I feel at liberty to call writer’s block what it really is: thinking.

Being stuck on words is temporary, but simply waiting for it to pass is to walk a path of misery. Whether a storyteller is hung-up on the second act, a character trait, plot device, or between ideas, you have to think  your way out of it. Don’t be the writer who prays to win the lottery but never buys a ticket. Feed stories with your thoughts, have a conversation with them, and wait patiently for their reply. While you wait, be as bold to have fun with a writing exercise. Here’s one: Craft a story with an answer to the question: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”* If that doesn’t get your creative thoughts flowing, read everything ever written.

*The first sentence of Charlotte’s Web, authored by E.B. White.