I spent most of this month in a holding period on my latest novel: wanting to write, unsure yet of what needed to be written. And while I know that books need to cook every now and then, I wasn’t exactly able to back off gracefully. Instead, my lovely inner martinet showed up ‘round the second day and started tapping her foot and looking at her watch. And she’s not exactly a poster child for personal space. If it takes me more than a few days to find out where I’m going next, by the time I am ready to sit down and write, I’m liable to have the shakes from the loud mouth-breathing she’s been doing in my ear.
I’m guessing that if you’re involved in any sort of life beyond your writing days, you’ve found yourself skirting the linear trap, too. Maybe you even tell yourself terrible stories about where you are in life/art/existence while you’re there. Maybe your inner martinet rebroadcasts these stories to you on a megaphone. But she’s there for a reason, too. Like your mother at her most dubious moments, she’s just scared and wants the best for you.
By the same token, it’s hard to see such flailing about as necessary, but it is. The beauty and truth of creative work is never more apparent than when it refuses to develop the tunnel vision you insist would make it so much easier to work with. Yes, having one clear path would make not just work but life easier, but, news flash: you’re not writing to make anything easier. You’re writing because you suspect there’s more than one simple answer to any important question. And that willingness to stay open-minded even when the path isn’t clear is critical to any project you set your sights on. Think, for a moment, of the difference between the structure of a line and the structure of a wave. Which speaks more to power and depth? Which better represents the natural flow of your writing?
The bottom line is that if it’s doing its job, your writing will ask for the full experience of you. And that includes the way you need to wander around in circles in your own mind when you’re searching for the really good stuff, coming up every now and then to the surface with what you’ve found, aware that even more is developing in the unseen reaches you’ve just left, waiting for your next, soft-footed visit. In fact, steady, tickertape writing is usually a sign that you’re taking dictation, not that you’re sculpting something with words.
But you cannot separate your creativity from your humanity, either, so there will probably always be a small part of you that looks longingly in the direction of the other kids on the playground who seem to have buttoned their shirts correctly and always get As in math and never cry during story time. The trick, I think, is to minimize the amount of time you spend telling yourself terrible stories about why you’re not writing, and maybe experiment with some others while you’re at it. It might be that you are, indeed, formulating something in your subconscious that would be ruined if it were pulled out too early; it might be that you read too much of the news this morning and feel like you need to go lie in the street. But when all is said and done, the reasons why you didn’t meet your word count on any particular day matter far less than how long you let yourself dwell in them.
Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, 1830-32