…it’s just that I was trying to force myself to write the wrong story.
Epiphanies aren’t just the province of writers. We all have them on a regular basis. They’re usually called aha moments—I only know the term epiphanies because I studied way too much James Joyce once upon a time—but whatever we call them, they’re undeniable. Little bolts from the blue, little pieces of wisdom that settle down and land on our shoulders. We roll our eyes, slap our foreheads, shrug, acknowledge, and get on with things.
I’ve been working on a story that’s close to being done. I’ve been working on it (to use the term loosely) for about four years. Honestly, I wrote and wrote and wrote like a train gathering steam, then simply stopped. I put it away for a little bit, went on to other things. When I came back to it recently I thought oh, good, this is almost done, it shouldn’t take any time at all to whip it into shape. What I found was that the same boulder that had stopped that train last time was still sitting squarely in the tracks.
None of my usual tricks worked. No amount of rereading, editing, reworking, outlining, theorizing, or fantasizing forced the words to flow. It’s not a bad story. In fact, it’s a really good one. It suffers a little from liking the main character too much, but that’s easy to fix. A little drama here, some extra trauma there… books are formulaic. They need to contain conflict, or the stories are flat. As writers, we don’t want them to be predictable. I know all these things, but on this one, even shaking them up and looking at them through the newest kaleidoscope lens wasn’t doing the trick.
One more time, I put it aside. I blamed a million things: I was traveling and didn’t have enough time to focus. I had too many other things to do. I wasn’t feeling great. I got distracted. There were other books to read, movies to watch, hungry mouthfuls of inspiration wanting to be fed. Excuses are a dime a dozen, they really are. I can come up with them at the drop of a hat.
The truth of the matter turned out to be that I was working on the wrong book. I’d just finished the first draft of a novel, to the tune of 75k words, and was feeling pretty good about it. In that hunter-like way, I looked around for the next thing because writing is a habit, just like exercise, and once we start it’s easier to keep going than it is to stop, relax, and have to start all over again. An opportunity presented itself and I figured this troublesome story, the one stopped in its tracks, was the perfect one to fit the opportunity. I still think it is.
The problem, though, was that the characters from the just-finished book weren’t done talking. I kept thinking about them, kept mulling over their lives, their experiences, what they were doing next, how they felt. Every time I started working on the stalled novel, I would sense the characters from the just-finished one like shadows in the background, moving restlessly, grumbling in little ghostly voices about how they weren’t done yet.
Finally, I caved. Even though I was traveling and conditions were far less than optimal for writing, I caved and gave one of them voice, and before I knew it those initial words on the page became 3500 words in the space of a few hours. That’s the pace I’m used to, not this scratching around only to have come up with a few hundred words three hours later. It felt good. The whole thing made me remember what it’s all about, as far as my heart goes. The words might be rough and might be edited out and might never be used, but it’s a great start.
Now if I can just find that same swing for the stalled story, I’ll be in great shape. First, though, back to the one that’s still picking up steam. Forward progress, onward and upward and all that. I still have a million things on my non-writing to-do list. I still have a lot of other writing projects to pick away at. At least now I’m confident they’ll all get done in due time. All I need to do is listen to the loudest voices.