Thursday 2 June 2022

When I'm stuck


A rock and a hard place.
Some writing days, nothing much happens. I write a few sentences and scratch them out, get up and make a pot of tea, figure out a crossword clue, come back to the writing, write and cross out, write and cross out. If I have a string of days like this, I usually start to suspect that I'm going in the wrong direction.

Apparently, Warren Buffett has a box on his desk for investments that he considers "too hard." I use a similar filter for writing. If the writing is too hard, if a sentence or a plot isn't taking me somewhere, I back up and start again. But sometimes it takes me a while to notice.

When I was writing my second book, By the Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation, which is a memoir about the first year of new motherhood, I reached a point in the book where I was overcome with doubt. My editor had already warned me that expectant mothers might be scared by some of the story. I felt like if I told the truth, I'd be dooming the book to obscurity. But the dark part was the story. There was no way around that. I wrote, trying to ease into it, then I crossed it out. This went on for days. 

Finally, I realized that the path I was trying to take, softening the story, was too hard. And so I backed up and started again. Here's what I wrote:

Warning: This chapter is a little dark. If that bothers you, you could always skip it and go on to something with more light in it, more of what we associate with new mothers. You could choose to believe that becoming a mother is only about what you gain and never about loss. If you chose to believe that, you would have lots of company. 

I'm not supposed to be dark about this. I'm afraid of sounding ungrateful, afraid I've already screwed up my karma by unloading all my petty worries, and, as the books say, worry is bad for the baby. I worried about being worried.

After several days of unsatisfactory progress on my most recent novel, I realized that I'd set myself on a course I didn't want to follow. My characters were stuck in a cave (strangely metaphoric) and one person who is injured offers to give the other a boost to reach a potential exit overhead. But I discovered that I wasn't interested in writing that scene. This is how I got myself out of the corner I'd backed my writing self into:

A different stuck moment
"Let's try it," he said. "It's going to hurt but it's not going to kill me."

"Okay," I said. [Here's where I got stuck.]

But we didn't move. We sat there for another ten minutes or so while John Lee shifted, trying to get into a comfortable position, and groaned softly, trying not to. 

The conversation that followed did interest me and it got me back on a track where things are happening, the story is pulling me along. 

I pay attention to a physical feeling in my body when a story is deepening and beckoning to me. It's same kind of thrill I get from reading a good book. It's why I write.