Those are two of the worst words in the english language. I shudder when I read them. I want to cover my ears with my hands when I hear them. and sing “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you!” like it doesn’t exist. Except it does. And I have it.
I have been trying to write a particular story for a long time. I posted the first chapter a little while ago (see “The Terminal Circle”). The story won’t come to me. I know the general plot and what happens to the main character, and I finally know who the main character is, but I just can’t get past the first chapter.
Heck, it’s taken me over two years to get the first chapter down. I sit at my computer screen and beg the characters to come to life. I lay down and close my eyes and try visualize them. How they act, talk, and walk. What they say and how they say it. Their movements and mannerisms. I just can’t do it. I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to, which then causes me to seize up like a kid about to bungee jump. I’m standing on the platform all suited up and ready to leap, but my feet won’t move forward.
What scares me the most is that this isn’t how I write. This is a plot my dad and I discussed. It was his idea, not mine, but he wanted me to write it. Now my dad isn’t here anymore and I can’t even discuss it with him and talk it through, which usually helps when I’m stuck. The big problem, though, is that I write spontaneously. I’ve written two books so far, and both of them came from middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep ideas. They weren’t something I thought through and analyzed. For both, I laid there in bed and saw the characters every time I closed my eyes. Before I fell asleep, I knew their names, saw their faces, knew how they moved and acted instantly. I knew what they were going to do and why. When I woke the next morning, I put it on paper and just didn’t stop writing. Of course it needed polishing, but getting everything down in a first draft was a snap. For the most recent manuscript, I had a first draft done and to betas within two months. (So thankful for beta readers by the way!)
I’ve written short stories in this manner as well. It’s like the story comes to me and begs to be written down, no matter what I’m doing at the time (even while studying for the bar exam…okay, especially while studying for the bar exam). However, I have short stories that I’ve tried to write that don’t get past the first few pages, even though I know I have a good idea, because I sat and thought it through too much.
I recently read “On Writing” by Stephen King (excellent read whether you’re a fan of his or not), and he describes writing as finding a fossil. You trip over it in the back yard and start digging, then keep digging until bit by bit the fossil reveals itself to you. I completely agree with this analogy. The characters I’ve written about, I don’t feel like I’ve created them so much as found them. Then I just had to keep writing to discover more about them until I had the whole story.
These stories that I’ve found, they write themselves. Sure, I’ve had to put some thought into it, but once I sit down and my fingers hit the keys, it’s like my fingertips take on a mind of their own. They fly and dance over the keyboard and before I know it, I’ve got 60 or 70 thousand words. It’s like that in my legal writing as well. I always had to wait until the mood struck me to write. Sure, I would get things out by the professor’s deadlines in school (in my working life I was left to my own devices), but I did my best work when my fingers could think for themselves. Sometimes that was down to the wire, but I’ve never missed a deadline in class or the real world and never made a poor grade (or below an A minus for that matter).
So I’m not entirely sure what to do with this…writer’s block (shudders like the hyenas in the “Lion King” when they hear the name “Mufasa”). Do I try and push through and write the story anyway, or do I let it breathe and hope the characters come to life? I’ve already let it breathe for two years, but maybe that’s not enough. Stephen King said he encountered a block when writing “The Stand” (one of my favorites) and only got unblocked when he realized that his characters were too comfortable and needed a shake-up (i.e. a bomb in a closet). That was a mid-book block though. Mine always occurs in the first stages of a manuscript, and so far have all been stories I eventually abandoned (bless their little hearts. I see them now, huddled in a forgotten folder on my desktop. Ragged shawls draped around their shoulders, tin cups at their feet, begging for me to revist them, to try again. I want to help, but what can I do? So I ignore them and keep moving with hollow promises to one day return and do what I can).
How do you handle writer’s block? Do you work through it, or take it as a sign that the story isn’t meant to be written right now and move on?