“*cough, cough* Spock! Must…make…word count! Save! Your! Self! *groan*”
I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately.
On THE DIVINERS tour (the subject of a future blog), I was asked often about how to write—what my process was like, if there were any rituals or shortcuts to know, whether I outlined or plunged ahead, and how you know if you’re doing it right. And time and again, I’d stand there, blowing out a gust of breath that ruffled my bangs and then I’d squint as if this might connote “serious thinking” of the sort that presages a very wise, succinct answer instead of the rambling meditation on “Oh, beats the hell out of me; I usually have a snack” that would follow.
This morning, I turned off the Internet and tried to dive back into DIVINERS #2. It’s been two months since I’ve had concentrated writing time and so this felt very much like an awkward first date between two estranged but hopeful lovers:
Person #1: “Ah. Yes. I remember that little opening scene in Chinatown. That was…fun.”
Person #2: “There’s a lot of blank space. And I don’t know what the dog means.”
Person #1: “True, true. (beat) But the description of the sky is sort of nice.”
(awkward pause #2)
Person #2: “Mostly. I guess. If you like that sort of thing.” (beat) “They’ve put the cookies out now.”
You get the idea.
I vowed that I wouldn’t stop myself. I’d write unfettered and worry about fixing it later as countless writing advice columns advise. Or I’d write the story arc of one character only, following his or her story through to the end, then I’d do the same for the others. I’d write a big, thrilling scene filled with scary scares. Or no, a heartfelt romantic moment which would thaw me out and get the writerly blood moving through my veins. I’d write a kiss. One kiss scene. How hard could that be? It involves lips. I have lips. I know how they work. It doesn’t even involve research.
As I watched the minutes ticking off into bigger chunks of time with nothing but the removal of two lines (one of which I put back in, then took out again), I began to dissolve into a puddle of panicky doubt and self-flagellation. (Self-flagellation: Now puddle-shaped!) That’s when the awful questions started: “What if I can’t do this? What if this time, I’ve truly bitten off more than I can chew?” “What if I’ve used up my supply of useful words over the last six books and now I’m only left with the word equivalent of stale Ramen noodles and wilted lettuce with which to craft my story?” “Perhaps I should outline? I should outline. Smart writers outline.”
I’d start to outline, then feel stymied because—and here’s the important thing—I don’t write this way. It is as unnatural to me as a salmon-and-peanut butter sandwich. I am not built this way. I, who am too chicken to ride a roller coaster or leave my house without food in my bag (Hello, Donner Party!), have only one extreme sport in me and it’s writing. I plunge into the unknown morass of my novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in my Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something. I trust. I have faith in the story.
Reminded of this, I’d tell my binders-and-color-coded-index-cards-and-post-it-notes self, “Yeah! I’m a free spirit, maaaan!” Whereupon I would rip off my hairnet, let my pixie tresses go free and sing a French chanson about liberation and the inevitability of death. (This all happens inside my head. Just in case you’re playing the home game. For the record, I am in a café surrounded by other writers on deadlines who don’t give a fig about my inner turmoil or the French as far as I know.)
And so I was forced to sit with my shitty, uncooperative novel just…thinking. Wondering. Connecting. A host of “What if…?” scenarios played around with like Scrabble tiles, trying to build a word pyramid with what I got. “What does this all mean?” I ask myself. “How do these seemingly disparate ideas and events come together in a meaningful, satisfying way?” “Who are these people? What matters to them? And why does this story mean so much to me?” What’s it all about, Alfie?
These are, of course, essential questions and a necessary part of the writing process. But in the midst of it? It doesn’t feel so great. Those “lack of an appreciable word count” writing sessions feel like failure days. It’s interesting that I associate “quantity” with success. I get grumpy about the frustrations of the writing process and impatient with myself and the story. “Why don’t I just KNOW these things already???”
Because I don’t. Because the act of writing is the act of discovery. Because shedding our armor in order to become vulnerable enough to wade around in the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the painful or the revelatory is done bit by slow bit. Because some things really are a little beyond our reach and the eventual grasp of those things is what makes the writing so satisfying on some other future day.For now, I’m going to write on something a little less frustrating just to remind myself that, hey, it’s also fun.
And since they’ve put the cookies out, I’m going to have one. It seems rude not to.