Writer’s Block: The Freedom of Chains

I’ve been reading what a great variety of writers have said about how they approach writer’s block, everyone from Norman Mailer to Maya Angelou. The sentiment seems pretty evenly divided between chain your butt to the chair and get the damn job done and when I can’t write it is my subconscious sending me a message.

Many writers have a hybrid perspective and that is the one that resonates with me. I need discipline to get beyond rote results: chain your butt to the chair so that your subconscious can soar free.

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Plots and Characters in the Raw

Typically, plots of my novels start with a collection of images, moments, vignettes, and other idea snapshots that feel related to me, although I do not always know why. Gradually, I discover the connections as the planning and writing evolve. During that evolution, there will always be ideas that turn out not to fit, after all, and I have to scrap those.

Similarly, my characters start as a pastiche of attitudes, actions, and problems, which may be drawn from people I know, situations I have experienced, or stuff I’ve overheard in passing. (Beware discussing your life while standing in a grocery store line. There may be an eavesdropping writer nearby.) As the book progresses, I inevitably discover that multiple characters have conflicting traits that all belong to me. Real humans tend to be more contradictory than even the most complex of characters. Perhaps on certain levels I use the characters to work through some of my contradictions.

The Subconscious as a Collaborator

How do you come up with your book titles?  Asked this recently, my answer came quickly: At some point I just know what the title is. Which means I’ve been working on it subconsciously. Which makes me realize how essential my subconscious is to the writing process:

  • Stuck? Set it aside and come back to it tomorrow. Usually when I wake up I know what to do — my subconscious figured it out.
  • Sudden discovery, typically while brushing teeth or gardening, of a plot twist that ramps up the tension and surprise? Thank you subconscious, you are always on the job.
  • Realization, as the book nears completion, that details have coalesced into a united theme? My subconscious knew from the beginning what this book was about; the conscious mind is always the last to know.

My principle motivation to write is a desire to connect with other people, but a secondary motivation is to connect with myself and see what will next emerge.

As I write this I find it difficult to say “I figured it out subconsciously” rather than “my subconscious figured it out”.  It doesn’t disturb me to feel that I contain these separate entities.  Should it? 

The Value of Shards of Writing Time

More progress with less time.  That seems to be the bottom line. Yesterday, the middle of three days off, I had all day to write. I frittered and chilled and squandered all those hours on doin’ nuthin’ (which has its own rewards but that’s another story).

This morning, crammed between the trip to the mechanic and the shuttling of kids – first items on a long must-do list – I knew it was now or never and I got a weekend’s worth of writing done in a couple hours.

These are recurring refrains. The tighter the time span, the more I get done, especially when preceded by a day of “nothing”, during which some part of my brain figures out what I need to write: when I sat down today I had it all figured out, but yesterday I had not a clue.

An Ode to Repetition

On one level, I hate routine. I’ve made important life decisions based on a futile attempt to avoid repetition. Changes of jobs, homes, cities – and probably relationships. I have to fight feeling trapped once I exhaust the options for fresh experience. But that time will always come. There are only so many ways you can drive to the store, if you are going to the same damn store from the same damn house.

Yet, concurrently, repetition and routine provide essential foundations to so much that matters to me. While it is always great to share a new experience with my kids, the comforting patterns of family life are constructed of routine. There is no question that I plan most of my writing during mundane tasks like toothbrushing or weeding. And one of the richest benefits of travel is how much I appreciate home when I return.

I have a friend who talks about Buddhist intent to stay fully present in each moment – aware of the give of the keyboard as I type, conscious of the flow of water and the scratch of the scrubpad as I wash a plate. She strives for this awareness to feel grounded and calm. I try it and discover subtle variations that make each repetition unique. Doing this seems to be as close as I can get to meditation -with all my Western impatience and resistance to organized faith.

The Idea Aggregator that Produces a Novel – Case Study

My novels apply a filter, sieve, microscope, and paintbrush to my life, with the occasional fun-house mirror or handful of feathers thrown in.

Scar Jewelry evolved through disparate experiences and observations that gradually connected inside my head:

  • When my twins were toddlers, a friend would look to incite reaction in me by stage whispering to them, I know things about your parents.
  • A decade later, I was hanging around with other parents at our kids’ track practice, when one mom came over to introduce herself. Her husband had pointed me out and said, She’s wearing a Billy Zoom t-shirt. Zoom was the guitarist for an obscure but legendary punk band, X, which we had all loved long before. From that point we became friends – and I looked at the other parents differently, wondering who they were before they were parents.
  • We set aside so much of ourselves to become parents. Some of us never regain those set-asides. Most children don’t much care about the non-parent parts of us and can be so dismissive of what matters – or used to matter – to us.
  • As parents, we don’t always appreciate what matters to our children. We make decisions that can dramatically and permanently change their lives, yet we rarely consult them as we decide what’s best for them. Hey, we’re the grown-ups, right?
  • I am adopted. As an adult I was lucky enough to be contacted by my birth family. It turns out that after I got adopted away, my birth parents married each other and had five more children. Meeting them transformed my views on many things and they’ve been a part of my life ever since.

By the way – though it may seem otherwise – nothing I’ve said here gives away Scar Jewelry‘s secrets!

Unknown and Unread…?

In 1967 Delacort published a novel by Patricia Cooper called In Deep. Ever heard of it? Probably not. I read it waybackwhen, remembered liking it, now I’m re-reading.  It. Is. So. Good.  My Dell paperback reprint wants to portray it as a sex romp through swinging Manhattan. Actually it is an edgy and suspenseful family drama, full of wit, insight, and memorable turns of phrase. As far as I can tell, this is Cooper’s only novel. She may have written a couple other, non-fiction books. (She doesn’t have much of an on-line footprint  and there may be more than one author with her name.)

Wonder why she stopped writing fiction. Hope it was because she was done, not thwarted or demoralized. It can be hard to distinguish between done  and done in. I hope she didn’t give up.

As I write about her, I think about me, and I hope I don’t give up. Twenty years between novels makes me a first time novelist twice over. And the publishing world of the early ’90s was so different that memories of it can be liabilities today. But I’m not done. So I’ve decided to believe that Cooper pulled a Harper Lee and stopped because she had said what she wanted to say.

Now I had better sign off to go get some writing done.