Thanks to a five-week jury service and a series of colorful ailments that my children have been generously sharing with each other, yesterday was the first time I returned to my novel-in-progress in a few months. And while I’m a huge fan of letting the fields go fallow every now and then, it’s never easy to return.
One of the not-so-helpful but incredibly stubborn ways I have of coping with opening a document that’s collected its share of virtual dust is to don my good little student britches and get to work. Yesterday, this took the form of deciding to sketch out the novel in its entirety – broad strokes only, of course, even my inner control freak thinks she’s reasonable – AND discovering a new way of sketching out novels in their entirety. I read about note cards and inventive Word documents and Excel templates until I found myself staring glassy-eyed into my new, free-for-30-days copy of MindManager, a program I’d describe as something Martha Stewart and Spinoza might come up with if they had to tunnel out of prison.
Anyway, it will come as no surprise to any of YOU that once I had my chosen diagram and templates in place, I had no idea how I wanted to fill them in. My creative self was effectively DOA, killed off by the army of Type A code breakers that live in my head. But as I stared, slack-jawed, at the computer, I remembered a few helpful things. One, no matter how much you know about writing, you will always stumble when encountering new or neglected terrain. In fact, it’s probably a good sign that you’re still willing to be open and vulnerable and willing to be surprised. Two, sometimes structure can be a great way into a difficult arena, but if you’re not careful, it can lock all the doors when you’re not looking. And three, just as you cannot control what goes in or out of a baby, you cannot control how your novel unfurls.
This last point is a little tricky. On the one hand, you will have to organize your novel as it develops, and in fact not doing enough organizing can mean it might wander off without you. Still, this is far better than trying to wrangle it into shape too soon. And further, oftentimes when you’re on the cusp of doing something truly innovative, you really need to beat back those stringent armies who want to come in and deal with that uneasy, thrilling feeling by slapping a seat belt on you before throwing on the breaks.
So how do you tell the difference? Well, you are more likely to seize up unnecessarily around work that is new or newly developing. In simpler terms, efficiency is rarely ever helpful when you’re starting a new creative project. If you clamp down too soon, you might miss out on all those weird and wonderful things your deeper self might want to say once the one that spends half the time on the Internet blows its wad. One exercise I love doing is to write the first line or paragraph of a new book or a new development in a book twelve different ways (thanks, Kenneth Fields!). Not only does this shake me out of my comfort zone, but it has the oddly soothing effect of satisfying those parts of my mind that want to just dig in and get it done.
Another great thing to do is to ask yourself if what you’re doing aligns with why you’re writing. If you’re writing to get rich and famous, this won’t work for you. But if you’re writing for the reasons that most of us write – because you know that personal expression is a gift that sours in the hands – noticing those moments when your energies stray from that truth can be surprisingly helpful.
Either way, the point is that what works in regular life doesn’t always work in the writing life, and that’s part of why writing is so appealing and so frustrating. The trick for me has been to recognize that these two lives will never totally assimilate, but they can certainly grow to inform each other in wonderful and beneficial ways. And as long as you can keep yourself from demanding that your writing follow the paths you set out for it, and forgive yourself when you slip up on this, you’ll be navigating the truly rough and wonderful waters of creativity with all the swagger you’ve earned. Sure, you might be scarred and tattooed and a little wonky-eyed, but no one – especially not you — will be able to deny your courage.