When I’m “in the zone,” writing truly feels like taking dictation from the universe, or at least from all the little people in my head. If I insert myself into the process and try to direct the action, they dig in their heels and refuse to cooperate. They become sullen and silent and perverse. They attach little strings to their arms and legs and feet and heads and dance around like a parody of Pinocchio, mocking me.
That’s not a good place to be. I think maybe that’s the place some writers call “writer’s block.” It’s more terrifying, actually, than mere mental constipation. It’s a dark place where you realize that the harder you try to control your imagination, the faster it slips out of your grasp and goes to play somewhere else.
I once had that happen a week into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’d been writing from the perspective of my thirteen year old protagonist, a boy, and realize I needed to switch point of view so that I could do a little head-hopping; I needed to tell the story from other characters’ perspectives, too, and show their inner conflicts. I went through my Word document with Replace All, changing “I” to “he” and “me” to “him” – and when I was done, I felt him scowling at me. He was my first little Pinocchio puppet, sarcastically and woodenly allowing himself to be stage directed, but adding nothing – not one iota of personality or fun – to the scene. For the next week, he refused to say or do anything anyone would want to read – and worse, nothing that “moved the story forward,” as we say. The other characters weren’t too happy having to live with his sullen pouty face, either. I finally took him aside for a little chat, and – incredibly frustrated and unsure what to do, told him that if he didn’t cooperate I’d dress him up in his big sister’s clothes and send him off to middle school that way. I’m not sure that bullying our characters is a good idea, and I’m ashamed of myself for even thinking to try it, but it worked like a cattle prod – and we called a truce. That was the first time I realized that writing was either a mental illness or a gift, but that we aren’t and shouldn’t be in charge of orchestrating every little detail of it. We need to let go, push off into the current, and simply write.
We tell children not to be so bossy or their playmates won’t want to join in their games anymore. And yet what do we do, the minute we “grow up”? Being a writer and being a perfectionistic control freak go together like sardines and buttermilk.
I intentionally made that image hard to read, so you’d have to slow down and think about it. But change the word “reply” to “blog” or “write” – it doesn’t matter, the result is the same, and I think it’s akin to stage fright. It’s wrapped up in fear – fear that we’ll forget a thought, fear that we’ll say something stupid, fear that the other person’s going to finish up and leave without hearing us out – I don’t know. Fear we’ll never get a word in edgewise if we don’t listen for them to suck in a breath, when it comes to some people – but still, if you make a habit of it, you’ll miss your cue – and you’ll have nothing much to talk or write about. Just let yourself listen, as Julia Cameron says.
Henry Miller wrote, “Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Remove ego and the need to impress other people through your writing; simply listen to the world around you and be a conduit for the stories that unfold in your head.
Listen with Me
Today’s “initiation” is to pretend that you are sitting under a large tree with your back to the trunk. On the other side of the tree is a Storyteller. Tell the Storyteller five tales you’d like to hear. If, like me, you’re a writer, this is hard – for all the reasons discussed, above, it’s hard not to try to be on both sides of that tree trunk, myself. What stories would I like to hear – and how would I tell them? For the moment, I need to listen – and let someone else tell them.
Okay, Storyteller – tell me about all the tiny creatures living in this tree trunk. I want to hear how they go about their daily lives. Not anthropomorphized squirrels, but real squirrels, and maybe a fairy or three.
And then, when you’re done, tell me about the harried executive who simply snaps, one day, and decides to live in a tiny house off the grid. Or maybe in a Hobbit Hole.
Tell me about traveling the world, sleeping in old monasteries. Or castle ruins. Haunted ones, maybe. A new sort of “gothic romance,” a new sort of house for the girl to run from.
Tell me about a writer who goes on a writing retreat. Or is that too self-indulgent? I’m still irked that one of my college professors beat into me the notion that nobody wanted to hear stories about writers. If we’re all writers, then of course we do. And… damn him. Misery? Or not a retreat – how about a writer who wins one of those free houses in Detroit?
How about the story of a white child adopted by a minority family?
Oh, just pick one you think I’d like.
Go ahead and do this in the comments – I’ll be your Storyteller, though I don’t promise to write to all requests.