The Doldrums and My Writing Life
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Topic: My Writing Life
Sometimes, in my Writing Life, I spend hours (Yes, literally) each and every day looking for "new" (original) words to write that will, eventually, result in the very best thing a writer can hope for: dollars!
Sometimes, there are so many words packing the "exit" line of my brain that it seems all I can do to type fast enough to get them out of my head, through my fingers and onto the page (screen). This can be a frustrating time for a writer, because these are just words. They may create, in the end, a scene, or a chapter, or a useless pile of words--one just never knows. In this "creative" phase (yes, it IS a phase--and it WILL pass!), the best thing a writer can do is just to simply get the words out.
This requires something of the writer that is often most difficult to willingly give: faith in the writer's own ability. I love it when the words are completely generated by talkative characters that I immediately recognize, in a scene or chapter that "comes out" in the proper form. Then, it is mostly just dictation, you see. I am very good at dictation; my characters have taught me not to ask, consider, grade, or evaluate the words. If I am attempting to move, for instance, a particular point in the plot forward, and the characters want to talk about a plot point 200 pages away, I have a choice. I can take the dictation, knowing that regardless of what hits the page, it will be somehow useful (or not) down the road. The only available tool I have to use at such times is my absolute faith in my characters (who most often understand the "real" plot MUCH better than I), and my own faith as a writer in the work.
I can also choose to try to ignore the chatter of my characters, and attempt to force them onto the topic I wish to "discuss" at a given moment in my writing life. Now, I must tell you truly, this can be a most aggravating experience. It usually has a spectrum of frustration for my writing life. If the point I wish to develop is of no particular import to the characters, they usually simply stand around the bus stop, waiting for me to "get it out of my system" (they refer to it, among themselves, as my "flushing the pipes" of my writing life).
Sometimes, however, they perform (the characters, not the pipes) a uniform flanking movement, demanding their own way in all of this. They will quietly sit at the bus stop, smoking and chatting as if I weren't even there. In other words, they simply ignore me! It is my job to take my characters where they need to go in the story. If I do not seem to be going where they are headed, or if my timing doesn't agree with theirs, they simply ignore me until their needs are met.
Now, lest you think me completely mad, this is a reality for writers who "know" their characters. You know a writer, and you think them a bit "different", don't you? Come one, 'fess up! Well, this is one way in which most writers are different. Their characters take on a persona which is just as real (and often much preferred) to their friends and family.
My trying to "force" my characters to respond as I need them to can very much resemble an empty bus pulling up to a bus stop loaded with people waiting--yet no one gets on the bus! There is no manner of chiding, pleading, encouragement, or knee-walking begging which will get them on the bus! If you say that you are a writer, and you have never experienced this, then I must seriously question your right to refer to yourself as a writer!
But you must also understand, trust, and have sufficient faith in your characters. They will always do what is right for the story in which they exist. They do know it better than you do, after all! (Okay, if you do not believe me, ask the characters and see what happens!)
They may well know that this NOT the bus they are supposed to be taking, and will spend much time belittling you for your so-obvious lack of understanding! In such cases as this, there is nothing you can do to get them on the bus! They may know this is the correct bus for them, but it has arrived too early (or too late) in the story. When this happens, one of two results will occur: They will simply sit on the bench at the bus stop, smoking and chattering quietly together, with the occasional glance at the bus, doors akimbo. They will dourly inquire of their timepieces (this is a great give-away of the problem, if you are observant), give the occasional disregarding glance towards the bus driver (that would be the writer), and continue their idle chat.
Sometimes, they will pull a real dilly! They will stub out their smokes, allow the ladies of the cast their rightful first position, and enter the bus single file, take their seats--all but one. This is a punishment to the driver, who should know his routes better. They will have drawn straws, or selected the one character with the most bitter disagreemnet with the driver in the first place, and that character will stubbornly stand, one foot on-one foot off, for as long as it takes. (Believe me, yes this really happens in the writing life.)
One time, I had a bus-full of characters who all piled into my bus, and refused to let the bus move--for two weeks! Why? Because they knew a point of the plot which I did not. They knew the bus (right route, right schedule, yadayadayada!) could not proceed until first some entirely unrelated plot scheme had worked itself out!
It takes a lot of faith and trust in your characters to allow this seeming mutiny. The writer has a choice to make at such times as these. He can get out his impressively over-sized character Whip, and beat his characters into submission. Having done this, sadly, I can tell you that one of three outcomes will occur:
1. Your characters, after a few too-many painful whelps, will relent en masse, and do exactly what it is YOU think they should do. This is, 100% of the time, the road to destruction in your work. The bus will explode, or will be crushed by a falling meteor (who saw THAT coming?). Or, your characters will quietly begin disappearing-never to be heard from again. Those that remain may break out into a language you have never heard, and will NOT speak your language-ever again!
2. Your characters will submit, and allow you to do what it is you so joyfully love to do: drive the bus--directly over the cliff. They are characters, after all. My characters live in the dark world of the mystery/suspense/thriller. What, they're gonna be scared? I think not. In fact, at these times, the characters, wanting an exit to remember, will suddenly take on the attitude of the bull-riding cowboy 7.5 seconds into a PRCA Championship belt-winning ride! They will start whoopin' and hollerin', just screaming for more speed! They are going out, and they want a memorable exit! (They usually get it, too!) You'll be totally distracted by all the goings-on, and turn around to look questioningly at your characters' wild actions--and miss the upcoming sharp left-hand curve. You will turn back around just in time to see the cliff. It's usually about 2 feet in front of you when this takes place. So long! YIPPEEEE!
3. Your characters will hold out indefinitely. You know there is a reason for their mutiny. You know they only mutiny when the writing, the plot, or the story itself is at risk. You will eventually get over your position in the first seat (I AM the writer, dammit!), and they know it. You will wander back through the bus, and only after carefully studying the face, sitting position, etc. of each, you will (if extremly lucky) find the one character willing to condescend to speak with you.
If you are a really smart writer, you will sit down, shut up, and wait. When they deem the time sufficient, you will know it. A really smart writer will ask (HUMBLY!) of that character something like "So, what are we waiting on here, folks?". You really need to have a power load of "suck it up" at this particular time in the writing life. Because inevitably, the character with the sad responsibility of informing the writer will most often say something sublime.
"You haven't told us where we're going." That's usually a good one. You were so busy getting them all on the bus, you overlooked one (or more) really important points in the story.
"We are NOT supposed to be on this bus, driver. This bus goes to the Mall. We are headed to the airport. Wrong bus." In your desire to be right, and to be a writer, you have put your characters squarely where they DO NOT belong.
"You've got us all gussied up to go to a funeral for character so-and-so." (Said character is the one talking to you.) "Now, bus driver, unless you have somehow become Hitchcock or Serling, isn't it kind of important that I die before we go spreadin' weeds on wood?" So, I guess we're just gonna haveta wait a while. By the way, I'm supposed ta die 1,000 miles, and 200 pages from here. We got time. You got that kinda time, bus driver?"
Yes, it really happened! Writers will understand, and feel deep compassion. Non-writers will find these examples hilarious, and point their fingers towards me, the very self-same bus driver with glee. (Hey, my story, my rules!)
When you are in "The Doldrums" of the writing life, and the words are just not to be found, there is a really good rule you should adopt-quickly if you wish to avoid even these few examples. Trust your writing! Do not FORCE your characters, your plot, or your story to do anything! You will not like the results, or the actions which come from your vain attempts to "control" your story, your plot, or your characters.
When you are in "The Doldrums" of the writing life, step smartly away from the plot, the book, and for the Grace of God, the characters! Take in a movie. Paint the drapes. Play with that Origami book you've been holding back-for just such times as these. Take a hike!
Be very careful about upsetting your characters by reading someone else's work during such times as these. (Do you REALLY want me to explain the hazards of such buffoonery?) Even the very best writers, the amazing plots, and characters right from the hand of God Himself have days when they just should not be together. Understanding when this occurs can save you many frustrating hours down the road, especially when you know the first honest act is to throw those 200 pages you have forced into existence--into the rubbish bin.
Now, I know that most who read this are not going to believe what I say. Fine. Remember what Rhett said to Scarlett. One of the greatest (if not THE greatest) advantages I have as a writer is the absolute trust and confidence I have in my characters. Do you think it began this way? Really?
Not in the writing life.
Posted by Budroe
at 09:16 EDT
Updated: Thursday, October 26, 2006 11:19 EDT