I’m thrilled to be guest blogging today over at changeitupediting.com, where I reveal a few of my writing secrets, namely how I’ve wriggled out a few creative blocks. Come on over and check it out and share your own tales of creative inspiration. While you’re there, indulge yourself in the some wonderful writing insights of editor Candace Johnson. Here’s to a prolific 2014!
It’s time we admit that Writer Separation Anxiety is a bona fide disorder. I’m not ashamed to say I have it, maybe others will come forward. Remember, there is strength in numbers. It may not afflict the majority of writers, but that doesn’t make us freaks. Why do you think there are so many sequel writers?
It’s true that most writers are ecstatic to finish a manuscript. However, when I wrote The End of my novel, I was bereft.
What would become of Caroline, Andy, Lilly, all my characters? We’d been together for so long. I spent more time with them than my real family. What would I do now?
That first morning after The End was the hardest. Time to get reacquainted with my LBTB (Life Before the Book). During the manuscript’s third edit our kitchen became depleted of anything edible. Grocery shopping was now long overdue. A chore would be good. It would keep me busy. No time to pine.
At the store I strolled down the cookie aisle. Bad idea. There were Oreos everywhere. You can’t dodge a cookie with 17 varieties. I told myself to stop thinking about Andy, he’s not real. Oreos were his crutch food. The night he and Caroline got into a chandelier-trembling argument (Chapter 6) he ate 2 sleeves of Oreos with a quart of milk. Any other guy would’ve gone out and gotten bombed with his buddies. Not Andy; he plopped on the couch (which he’d later sleep on) and ate 28 cookies. I hated that night. I hated when they fought. A friend of mine accused me of being secretly in love with Andy. Which is complete hogwash. I’m married!
I spun the grocery cart around and headed to frozen foods. I’m far less emotional when I’m cold. My internal voice said, “Cheer up! Celebrate! You finished your first novel!” Right at that moment I found myself smack in front of the Carvel Cakes. A sign! Clearly, a celebration was in order. I felt better already. In fact, I started whistling−which I often do when I’m happy (or need a bathroom). Then I recognized the tune: My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music. I gasped. The very song Caroline hummed on that disastrous night (Chapter 10). If only I could’ve helped her.
Grocery shopping was not going as planned.
I paid for the cake and pimentos and skulked to my car. My phone rang. It was my son. Thank God, a real person to focus on. “What’s the matter Mom, you sound awful.” I tried to stay light and breezy but I choked up. “Mom, it’s okay to miss them. You’ll be alright, remember when Caroline thought she was having a nervous breakdown−”
“Because she was!”
“Oh god, that’s right. Jeez…”
Before I shifted the car in reverse my phone rang again. It was my husband reminding me of our neighbor’s party invitation. We declined because I thought I’d still be editing. “We should go,” he insisted. If I wasn’t having fun, at least I could eavesdrop and steal mannerisms and quirks from people to use for new characters. That sounded amusing!
It felt good to wear decent clothes and eye shadow for a change and rekindle with the neighbors−laughing, swapping stories, exchanging recipes. Was it wrong of me to give them a deviled egg recipe that Caroline’s mother, Elaine, kept secret (Chapter 14)? Somehow she’d never “remember” to tell people about the chili paste. That always made me laugh.
Boy was I out of touch with current (past) events of our town (world). A neighbor’s sister miraculously recovered from a near-fatal illness. Everyone reveled in this news−then mid-hoopla, their eyes, with scrunched brows, turned my way. Ripples of “Are you okay?” spilled over me.
I wasn’t okay. “It’s just that Caroline’s sister wasn’t so lucky−” I tried pulling myself together but instead became defensive and blubbered, “…she’s dead.”
My sniffling intensified under a chorus of “Oh my gosh” and “I didn’t know” and an exchange of incredulous glances. Someone asked, “Who’s Caroline?”
My head shot up. I spurted like a broken carburetor, “My protagonist!”
It was time for me to go. I insisted my husband stay. I needed to be alone.
At home I sat in the chair that supported me for all those months (years) it took to write my novel. I lifted the manuscript and inhaled deeply to smell the paper and ink. I thought about Caroline, Andy and Elaine, the kids. The triumphs and disasters. It was time they moved on without me. Me without them. They’d enriched my life in so many ways. I’d always have that. I put down the manuscript and picked up a box of Oreos.
Time to ponder a sequel.
It is that very particular exhilarating feeling, when you find a book so scrumptious and exotic you open it with a whisper and close it with a sigh. You’ve found this book through no one’s urging or description or advertising. You wandered alone, woozy in towering aisles with books stacked up to another altitude, on a day when no one seems to have this same idea. All others are elsewhere and so it’s only the sound of your own quiet breathing and the buzz of the florescent lights that you hear. You are looking deliberately for something, a book of fiction about a man who is lonely in a house deserted, but you are half-hearted about this man and his house and this story. You’ve read it before. With a woman and a castle. And you’ve written it before that. So instead you turn and change direction. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” you say to yourself and are left to ponder exactly what it is you mean.
When left uninspired, it is always wise to choose a classic. You crouch down in the Fs in a position only three-year-olds find comfortable; your knees crackle and you know this limb configuration will have a deadline. Without pause your fingers skip through the shelf, grazing each binding, searching for FI and then T. Your time is up; your knees tell you so. Your fingers must decide. They do and pull back the top of a book’s binding who’s dressed in black and white and in one fell swoop you clutch and stand. Fitch. No. Wrong book. Before slipping it back into place, without a conscious decision to do so, you turn the book over and read what’s been said about it.
“This is what you’re after when you’re browsing the shelves for something good to read.”
A silent gasp preempts your next breath. Your cheeks prickle with heat and you gulp the collected saliva before your eyes move cautiously to take in who and what is around you. How can this be? How did it know? You bring White Oleander home and feast on its beauty and barbed wire without manners or even a napkin to dot your lips. When you’re finished you imagine you have joined a secret book club of members who have also found this book this way. A book you never speak about to anyone, instead you keep its secrets and believe others will read it because it will be fated to them. Just as it was to you.
I have some good news and some bad news. It’s about creativity. Well, mine anyway. After many years of alternately experiencing both droughts and monsoons of creative vision, I have miraculously discovered from where to harvest my most creative self. I liken it to mining for gold−since the result of every creative endeavor (on a good day) yields a precious, rare, wondrous thing of beauty and value.
Of course no two nuggets of gold are alike. If I’m really lucky, some are hefty chunks. Others are tiny slivers, gossamers even, so slight that most people could not see their true value with the naked eye. Each one is multi-faceted, sharing characteristics that are, at times, even contradictory. Parts are smooth like glass, so that if you looked into it you’d see yourself−only better. Some parts are scruffy and rugged with razor sharp points that could gouge your eyes out like the grin of a saber tooth tiger. The dirty crevices inevitably found in nuggets of gold always seem incongruous to their opulence. Crevices caked with dirty black deposits so dark, like the unknown of a cave. Let’s not forget the shimmery twinkly parts, gleaming with luster like a wink from a star. To me it makes no difference what form or size the nugget takes−they’re all solid gold.
Ok. Here’s the bad news. There’s only one way I can source these clusters of creativity. For me, the most successful excavation happens under one condition: when I’m in a horizontal position in a half-sleep. I’m not kidding. I discovered this years ago when I started writing my first novel. I’d sit for hours into the late night at my computer exhausted and weary, often with a steady stream of drool leaking from the corner of my mouth. I would try to push through the zombie state because these were the hours I needed to make writing progress−my young children were finally asleep. But I would be too spent to feign creativity or anything writerly, so off to sleep I’d go.
It was on those exceptional nights when I’d find the most wonderful sleeping position ever, the kind where all body parts are in the exact intoxicatingly perfect place. (Why can’t my body find that position every night?) It was on these rare nights, when I’d feel myself slipping off into a deep slumber, that someone from my novel, usually the protagonist, would urgently throw open the door to my semi-consciousness. My first thought was always, “What the heck are you doing here?” Then, “Where’ve you been for the last three hours? Now you got something to say?” I’d argue with the protagonist a bit, but it was clearly futile because I knew in my heart of hearts that a gold nugget had just been plopped on my pillow.
Well, years have passed and one would think I’d have a system for capturing these inopportune but welcomed visits of vision. Since they can take the form of great dialogue−so natural it feels like I’m eavesdropping, or a shocking plot twist or the greatest cliff-hanger chapter ending ever, I should at least have a pad and pencil on my nightstand. I don’t. Nor do I have a mini voice recorder. And since my memory sucks, and since my memory sucks, I can’t possibly depend on myself to remember any of it in the morning. Sometimes I create word associations to try to help me remember; they’ve had varied success. Other times, I’ve relied on the rhythm of sentences that I repeat over and over again in my sleepy state. Oddly, I can remember the rhythm of a sentence in the morning and derive the words from there.
A mini recorder would be nice.
This pattern of getting gushes of creativity when lying down dozing off has become predictable lately. So much so, I can safely call it my technique. One in which I call upon now even in the middle of the day. If, say, after toiling at my computer for an hour or two, but I’ve yet to make any kind of inroads on the story I’m writing, I actually start to feel a little sleepy. I get up from my desk and lie down on the couch, snuggle up to my favorite pillow, and drift into a half-slumber. And voila! I strike gold.
I’m sure it sounds strange to some people−in fact it was strange to me in the beginning. But it makes sense in a world with so much buzz, distraction and sensory assault, that I would need quiet in order to think and create. Emails, facebook and twitter are an instantaneous click away from a Word document. I don’t look at creativity and inspiration in the same way anymore. Noise ignites inspiration, quiet ignites creativity. This brings to mind something I read in Anna Quindlen’s Newsweek piece, Doing Nothing is Something. “You can’t write poetry or compose music or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.”
My kids used to think it was crazy that I’d need to sleep to come up with my best writing ideas. They’re used to it now. In fact the other day my daughter and a friend were walking through our family room on the way to the kitchen. The friend saw me on the couch, curled up under a velvet blanket, and she whispered to my daughter and pointed at me. Through my semi-conscious state I heard my daughter say, “Oh, don’t mind her, she’s just writing.”