So we turn our heads. We look in the direction of the shifting shadow and see a bit of a shape to it, and we write down what we see.
Sometimes this leads to the next thing and the next thing. Those times are gifts, when the story reveals itself to us in full, continuously, as we sit with it and open ourselves to the words that bring it into the world.
Most times, we have fits and starts. The scratching creature gets skittish and scurries away the moment we've turned our attention toward it. We have a line or two, a page or two, and don't know where the little beast went or how to follow. We look for its tracks in the rooms and landscapes of our minds, and along the way, we see what it saw as it ran.
Sometimes, we find it that same hour we started searching. Other times, it takes weeks, months, or even years. There are traces of story that started in me over 20 years ago, back when I was in high school, and I'm only now picking up their footprints. In the time since they first tickled at the edge of my conscious to now, I've written many, many other stories. And even in these, I've come to dead ends and missing trails at different moments along the journey.
Some of us call this writer's block. I have come to think of it as not being ready for the story, or for the particular part of the story, that we're writing.
Stories are one of our most ancient containers for truth. When we didn't understand nature, or cruelty, or love, or time, we made myths to contain these truths so we could hold them up to the light and examine them outside ourselves. This helps us navigate the complexities of our own experience.
But what if a story has a truth to tell that we don't yet know ourselves, as its writer?
Here are some things we can do when we realize our story has outrun us:
- Take a break. This is a timeworn strategy, but worth remembering. If we step away for awhile, we might gain perspective that will open the dams again and let the story rush back through.
- Research. Even if your story is not history or science driven, even if it is in your home town on the same timeline as your life, you don't know everything about it. If you did, you wouldn't be writing it in the first place - we write to explore a problem, to get resolution. Look at the medicine, the geography, the different expectations of genders and ethnic groups, the urban legends, the "normal" of your story's world and people.
- Is there a character you don't like? Read blogs and memoirs by people who have similar traits and learn what it's like to be them. These characters you dislike often have something to teach you, but they won't tell you your secrets knowing how much you hate them. Find a way to care about them, even just a little, and see how they suddenly explode into complex, breathing souls. You can still write them as unlikable, but now they will be multifaceted and believable, more capable of illustrating the core of the story.
- Is there a character you love too much? Oh, dear, this is hard. But we have to let them hurt, and we have to let them hurt because of their own flaws. If you work to hard to protect your character's image, no one will believe them anyway, and this perfect character, just like your villain, will stop talking to you. If you can't love someone, warts and all, they know better than to show you their warts.
- Work on multiple projects at once. If you've taken a story as far as you can without doing the research and work above, it helps to take out other projects and give them more of your energy. In May, Joli Jensen wrote a fantastic article in The Chronicle about how to manage multiple projects according to your schedule and energy levels. Remember, in cases where deadlines aren't involved, it's OK to shift between which projects receive your strongest commitment when your A story goes silent on you.
- Treat your stories like friends. Stories, like people, sometimes need space. Keep coming back to check on them, but respect the relationship. You can have more than one friend at a time, but it's unlikely you'll be engaged in deeply focused, intimate conversation with more than one or two of them in the same moment. Enjoy the time you spend with each of them, and invite the others over in their turn. Maybe one will teach you something that grows you enough to understand the truth in the others that you weren't ready to receive when it first came to you.
- Examine your demons. Even though most of my characters and their circumstances are not much like me, I often find them facing similar internal challenges to mine. Sometimes when I'm stuck, it's because I need to do some soul searching of my own before I can write a character honestly through their flaw. If you think this might be the case, I recommend doing some guided journaling. Many 12-step programs use the tool of a "fearless" personal inventory that can be adapted to addressing our demons as writers so that we can write our characters honestly as they address theirs.
What about you? Do you have other strategies for making yourself ready for the story that wants to be told?