What to do when the zest wanes.
Writing practice gives us a chance to write without judgment (or even reflection). Writing for ten minutes a day, warming up, doing Daily Prompts, or even morning pages — this is like an athlete stretching before a game, or a singer vocalizing before a performance. Necessary. Fundamental. A way to love and care for your vocation.
But you might begin to desire more collaboration with your writing. You want to work with characters, setting and story. You want to go deeper, follow through, and feel engaged in a bigger project. You want to experience a character’s transformation. You want to write a book.
These things require some reflection.
Short, timed writing exercises are wonderful, because they take reflection right out of the work! But when you write a story, or a book, the work becomes more complicated.
You must train yourself to remain aware of your thoughts, but not be blocked by them.
The difficulty in writing a story lies in remaining true to the writing while you give yourself opportunity for reflection. It’s difficult, and this is when many writers get in their own way — they listen to their own thoughts, and believe in them.
Your writing needs your imagination. Your imagination wants to explore the unknown. Your mind is scared of the unknown. It can’t help it! It wants you to write something it understands. But if you wrote something you understood already, then you'd be writing a report, or a summary.
Writing works best when you can remain curious about what you discover while you are exploring the unknown. When you stay curious and keep writing, even when your mind tells you that it’s not safe, you begin to explore the unfamiliar territory of your subconscious.
To write a story that has transformation within it, you must stay in the viscerally uncomfortable place of writing while you simultaneously accept the following truths:
a) you can’t know for sure what it is going to be
b) you can’t know for sure if you'll be able to finish it
c) you can’t know for sure if it’s any good or not.
This won’t feel good, at first. It won’t feel like that fresh burst that comes from tackling a daily prompt for ten minutes. It won’t feel like you’re doing it right. And it certainly won’t feel like anything else you do in your day.
Because the process of creative writing is so mysterious and non-linear and weird and random-seeming, it’s as though your writing is asking you to strap spoons on your feet, walk backwards, and fly. While you are holding peonies behind your back and eating a bowl of soup at the same time. For more than ten minutes at a time? Impossible!
Stay in it. Cross your fingers, make a wish, and strap spoons on your feet.
It won’t feel like you’re makes any sense. It might not even feel possible to keep writing, sometimes. The structure of your story might not become recognizable to you until after you write it.
In order to find your story, you have to keep writing without knowing, while feeling that awful, squirmy feeling.
Clues that you’re on the right track: you will feel like you’re doing it all wrong. You’ll feel like you’re out of your depths. After you write the fresh fun part, the sparkly feeling wanes. You have no idea what to do or where to go, or how to power “it” up again.
When you feel any of the above, you’ve reached the next magic turn in your writing road. See those feelings as little arrows, pointing the way to the unknown. You’ve reached a new level in the game.
The trick is to stay curious and uncomfortable at this point, and not clamp down or bail.
Clamping down: writing something known, comfortable, cliched, derivative, wooden, and without life, because it feels safe.
Bailing: stopping when you get to the place where the urgency wanes.
This not-knowing-but-continuing-anyway can feel brutal, but only if you believe that you have to feel in control of your writing! You don’t want to be 100% in charge. You’re collaborating with your writing, remember.
When you go past the not knowing, your story develops, and teaches you something that you don’t know you know, yet. You want to be surprised; that’s how your reader will feel surprised.
When the zesty feeling of writing a scene wanes, my wish is that you begin to see that as a little prismatic flag waving you to your entrance point. Here is where your story gets interesting. Here is where your writing is asking you to be even more curious.
How do you stay in the writing when your mind is telling you to clamp down or bail?
Trust your writing. Let it lead you. Be willing to let go of control, and strap on those flying spoons. You may feel a little sick to your stomach. That’s okay. Cry a little. Laugh maniacally. Lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling while moaning. Just a little. Then get back to your notebook.
Here are some things that help me when I’m stuck (from the practical to the esoteric):
Creative restrictions — such as setting a timer, using a Story Dare prompt, setting myself a deadline, a specific page count (like 376 words exactly), a specific POV, etc.
Copying the structure/form of another short story I love
Playing “what if?” — make a list of everything that could happen next, from boring to outlandish, and then pick one and write from it
Participate in a guided writing session, like my 90-minute writing practice classes
Writing 100 un-connected sentences in one point of view
Asking a story-related question just before I go to sleep
Listening to the same instrumental playlist whenever I write (like spell-casting)
Tag-teaming it with a writing buddy — forcing 2-5 pages a day, no matter how crappy they are
Focusing on one small, tiny detail in a scene, and describing it in great detail, without having to write any action at all. (this often leads to insight)
I encourage you to try one (or all!) of the above techniques, and see if you can’t stay in the uncertainty a little longer. I know it can feel excruciating. But with practice, I promise you, you will become more comfortable with that weird blank feeling, and you will recognize it for what it is — a sign that you’ve reached a turning point. And you can remind yourself that it’s a sign you’re on the right track.
If you’d like help with any of the above, The Story Course and The Story Intensive are writing programs I made to guide you through this adventure.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to be part of The Story Intensive this year. We have spots available for 4 more people, and the classroom introductions only just started yesterday. You can sneak in now and still meet everyone before your first assignment is due!
Here’s to your curiosity and stamina for the unknown,
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