Or: the lesson I have to learn multiple times a year, and maybe if I write a blogpost about it this’ll be the last time.
I can’t think of anything in the novel writing process I’ve struggled with more than the days or weeks of being stuck. Writing is full of impossible bits, and I don’t think I’d do it if there was anything else I liked doing half as much, but accepting the moments where I can’t just push through might be the hardest thing of all.
I’m always suspicious of myself when it happens. Am I just not trying hard enough? It’s easier to blame some lack in me or my preparation than accept the moments of being stuck for what they are: a natural part of my creative process. I don’t want them to be part of it. I want those days when I can’t seem to make progress to be something I can fix. Every problem is meant to have a solution, and it’s not meant to be something abstract like do other stuff until some mystical combination of planetary alignments and the right song playing at the right time unsticks you. You’re meant to be able to work through things actively. Key word: work. Not passively process. Definitely not read and watch things that spark joy when you could instead be banging your head against a wall cursing your continued incompetence.
That last sentiment holds the key to what I actually think is so hard to accept. Some part of me believes work—even creative work—requires suffering to be going anywhere. The thought that engaging in my hobbies, which is pleasant, might be the answer to writer’s block? It’s harrowing. I want to believe it so badly I can’t believe it. Enjoyment is suspect; dogged note-taking, list-making, and Save-the-Cat-reading gets results.
Instead the opposite seems to be true. And before I keep rambling, I feel like I should explain what “stuck” means for me. Sometimes it happens during the planning phase of a book, when I can’t seem to make the pieces fit together. I know the overall shape of the story I want to write, but the characters’ personalities feel uninspired or weak or like they’re not coming together in a way I find interesting. Maybe the main character feels too depressing and I don’t want to be in their head until something about them changes. To write a story I need to know I can have fun with it, and until I have a sense of the characters and the moments in the story I can’t wait to get to, I can’t just jump in. So: stuck.
Then there are the times while writing—usually between scenes—that I can’t quite envision what comes next. I know what’s meant to happen, or at least I take notes and outline until I do, but the way it happens is opaque. Sometimes I can bracket the scene I know should be there and move on, but other times attempting to move forward without the missing scene makes the whole book feel subtly wrong. Some important change in structure or character motivations or direction is needed, and everything I attempt until I figure that out will fall flat.
So that’s being stuck, and instead of continuing to bang my head against a wall I need to step away. Read books, watch TV shows, listen to music. Sometimes there’ll be a distinct “aha” moment; other times this type of creative vacation just gives me fresh eyes so that the next time I look at my draft everything falls back into place as long as I tweak some tiny thing. The changes I need to make seem simple and obvious in hindsight, but I can’t force it. I know I can’t; I’ve tried repeatedly.
I’d like to become a person who can use those creative fallow periods in one project to work on another. It wouldn’t be late stage capitalism if I didn’t want to wring every ounce of productivity from myself—but there’s a part of me worried that switching between projects whenever I’m stuck will just lead to a lot of aborted projects. There’s a sense that my mind is chewing on the current book even when I step away from it. If I turn my attention to a different in-progress novel, will all that usual unconscious processing even happen for the first one? I’m not sure my brain is big enough for two novels at a time, at least if they’re in similar stages of drafting. If you’re a writer reading this—or really anyone who can relate to the situation—I’d love to hear what you think re: focusing on one thing or swinging back and forth.
Possible novel-juggling aside, I really can’t overstate how hard it is to “do nothing”. Of course I don’t actually do nothing—I keep house, help friends, work outside—but when writing is the thing that I do, dropping it for days on end feels like playing hooky. Worse, it feels like playing hooky but the principal lives with me inside my head and he’s not mad, he’s just disappointed. So disappointed…
I’m working on that frustration and disappointment. I’m learning to trust my impulses instead of assuming the worst. This is what I want to do; I’m not trying to get out of work. I just don’t always know how to get into it. I’m not big on the creativity as a mystical force you can’t control cliché, but that doesn’t mean the write every day no excuses crowd has the right of it. My new process when I feel stuck is as follows:
- Look at my notes/outline to make sure I know what I should be doing next.
- If I don’t know what I’m doing next and just haven’t decided yet–if it feels possible to make a decision–decide.
- If everything still feels impossible, realize (and accept!) that something isn’t clicking.
- Stop actively trying to work.
- Immerse myself in narratives I think I’ll like.
- Let my mind wander.
- Indulge seemingly random impulses–research something, reread an old fanfic, make a playlist.
- If inspiration still hasn’t hit: look at notes again and see if resting has cleared my head. If it hasn’t, keep repeating steps four through eight. Try not to obsess about wasted time.
There’s only so much I can do. There’s that great quote: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Each time I let myself off the hook a la step four, there’s discomfort. I think inspiration won’t find me working–but that not-working is part of the work. It’s happened often enough for me to recognize it, but I still have to accept it.
Maybe this time. I think that every time, but this is the first time I’ve written so extensively about it. Here goes nothing, right?