We all have them: times when life screams at us, “Pay attention to ME, dammit! I don’t care if you have a book/story/column/career. I’m going to throw a sharp object in your path and you’re going to run over it and BOOM! The best you’ll be able to do is coast to a stop and try to regain your breath. Moving forward won’t even be in the picture. You won’t be able to focus on anything at all.”
Yeah, we’ve all been there. Or we will be.
Without going into detail (a writerly taboo, I know), I’ve worked through four significant and simultaneous personal crises during the past two years.
Through them all, I kept my obligations. I never stopped writing, of course. I met all of my deadlines. I fed the kids and got them where they needed to be. All the cogs kept moving.
But where I needed inspiration and confidence–that’s where things got ugly.
I began a thorough revision of my character-driven WIP early in this period. The revision chugged along fine for a brief time, but then I reached a point where I had to fix a key plot problem. I was tempted to play around with other, less knotty parts of the manuscript, adding detail here and fixing dialogue there, but I knew none of that would mean anything until I resolved this critical plot dilemma.
So I tried to work out the solution. I wrote out a possibility. Didn’t like it. Scrapped it. Repeated the process.
Again. And again.
I decided to look past the plot for the answer. Everything’s about character for me, so I went back into my characters’ lives and asked them more questions. I discovered I actually didn’t know them as well as I thought I did, so I got to know them better. I scribbled notes in the notebook in my car, in the notebook on my nightstand, in the one in my purse, on my dive slate. If you want to know what one of my main characters ate for breakfast on this date in 1992 and why, I can probably tell you.
But every time I came up with a plot possibility, I also came up with a reason I hated it, and I threw it away.
I thought, well, if something in the middle of the book isn’t working, the problem must be at the beginning. I looked there, and I didn’t find the problem. I considered the possibility that the book’s problem was structural–my novel does have a complicated structure–but I wasn’t confident that was the issue, either.
At a certain point, I realized I’d written tens of thousands of words in an effort to find a solution…and I’d thrown every one of them away.
At this point, I considered abandoning the novel. What if, I thought, all of this searching had only yielded my WIP’s fatal flaw? What if this book that had completely obsessed me for years really belonged in a drawer?
This is when it struck me that perhaps I’d lost perspective. So much in my life at that point was confused and negative, and it was affecting my writing. Sitting down to think–without my characters accompanying me, for a change–I realized that if I’d had a deadline, I would have forced myself to come up with an acceptable solution for my plot problem and finished writing the book. I would have gotten it done. But as an unpublished author, I have only myself to satisfy. And I’d become my most negative and impossible-to-please critic. The Anti-Muse sat unimpeded upon my shoulder, filing her nails and smiling with satisfaction as she watched me tear apart the work I’d built paragraph by paragraph in the years before this one.
Now is the point in the post where I’m supposed to offer the magic bullet, where I tell you exactly what I did to knock that Anti-Muse off her complacent perch for good. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that easy. But she is struggling these days, and here is how she lost her balance:
- I went on a couple of brief writing retreats with writers who were wonderfully supportive in listening to me talk on and on about my plot problem. At a time in my life when I appreciated support of any kind, their encouragement was like an infusion straight from the Muse himself. (Yes, my muse is male. Make of that what you will.)
- I decided it was okay to keep scribbling notes that would never be part of my book, even though I am in the revision stage. After all, I’m rewriting key parts of the story. I may be the most inefficient writer ever to place fingers on a keyboard, but if that’s how I get the job done, so be it.
- Most importantly, I began to resolve some of the other issues taking place in my life. These issues are mostly long-term and ongoing, so they won’t just disappear. But as I began to manage them and put the pieces of life problems where they belonged, I also found myself devising a plot line that I finally believed might work. I’m now writing the outline for the next draft–the one that had eluded me for so long–and the Anti-Muse is sitting on her ass in the dirt, trying to figure out how to climb back onto my shoulder. She’s not gone yet, but she’s not in charge anymore, either.
I’m glad I kept writing notes I knew I’d never insert into my WIP, even when I hated what I was writing. As it turns out, all of those notes were a way of keeping my head in the game when my focus was necessarily concentrated elsewhere.
We all have to get our work done. That’s a given. But sometimes life forces you to turn away from plans A, B and C simply to get through each day the best you can. When that happens, I’ve learned, separate the “musts” and try not to get too discouraged. When there’s finally enough room in your life for the creativity door to open, the Muse will step through once more.
Image courtesy Casey Serin via Flickr.com.