Okay. Wow. Welcome to the other side of easy.
For two weeks I have been stuck. Not on the actual writing, but the thinking about the writing. “What is all of this about? What am I trying to say?” It turns out that asking questions like these during the exploratory phase of writing is a sure way to get very, very lost. The thing is, until very recently I didn’t know I was in the exploratory phase. I thought I had a firm grasp on what I was working on: a story with a clear arc and carefully considered plot points.
Wrong. Or rather, something wasn’t right. This something gnawed at me until my output slowed and I was begging for words, any words, so I could feel that I was still moving. And I was, just in circles.
A few days ago I watched a TED talk by Kathryn Shulz where she asks the audience, “What does it feel like to be wrong?” They reply with “Dreadful. Thumbs down. Embarrassing.” Shulz says, “You’ve described how it feels to realize you’re wrong. Being wrong actually feels like being right.”
Then she puts it another way. Like Wile E. Coyote, this guy goes after what he wants, and for a while everything is fine.
It’s not until he looks down that he ends up in trouble.
You only start to fall once you realize you’re wrong. That was the experience I had this week: looking down and falling.
It’s not that everything I’d written was bad, it’s just my attempts to “start getting it all down” in a hurry produced work that wasn’t anything close to what I had set out to write. I had drifted from struggling to portray moments and images that were imbued with emotion, to churning out scenes that contained little more than loosely connected plot points.
At first I told myself this was okay and kept going. Then I became more and more averse to looking over what I had read, until I couldn’t bring myself to look at any of it. That’s when I looked down.
Where I am now, halfway through the write-a-thon, is back at the beginning. I’m going to take the raw content I’ve created and rework it with an eye toward an experiment designed by Carole Maso. In Now Write! Nonfiction, she discusses the way Akira Kurosowa’s film Dreams uses imagery to tell a story. “Watch for the dominant images that appear [and] note the way they reappear either directly or in morphed variations through the films. The recurrent images alone seem to make unconscious links in the mind of the viewer and allow something other than plot to create a kind of “story,” more mysterious and elusive and open-ended, but a story nonetheless.” This passage articulates my original strategy for writing the story before I started banging my head against the wall trying to figure out the plot, before I started demanding the answer to the question “What does all this mean exactly?” I think it will be a good place to begin again.
I expect that what follows will be a process of experimental assembly, putting one thing next to another and seeing if a suggestive space opens between them. This sounds kind of loony, and most definitely pretentious, which is perhaps why people don’t talk about their process, especially when they’re still finding it, but thinking about stories in this way makes my heart beat fast, it summons a strangeness of feeling that I remember having as a kid searching for a mystery that I could solve. Thus, my strategy going forward is to forget about plot for the time being and instead focus on capturing beautiful, suggestive images that speak to the dynamics between characters and their relationships with the world. I’m also shifting from writing 500 words a day to writing for 1 hour every day. I’m hoping this will encourage me to stick to it when the writing it’s hard, rather than breeze through a set number of words (any words) and call it a night.
My hope is this understanding of where I actually am in the process coupled with the rediscovery of what I want to create will help me to begin moving forward again. I’m not sure this route will lead me where I want to go, but it feels right to try.
This post is part of an ongoing series about the Clarion West Write-a-thon. I wrote about why I’m doing it and what I hope to achieve. If you’d like to support me you can visit my write-a-thon page to donate, or become one of the 50 people I share my new short story with. I’d be delighted to have you.