“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
― Ray Bradbury
Writing can be intoxicating in the very best of ways. Some days, a current of words courses from my fingers, gushing brilliance onto microchips with passion, zeal, and ease. My ship of story sails upon the winds of wonder, and I just sit back and steer.
Then the anchor thuds without warning. The breezes die. The characters refuse to answer my SOS. Not another inch, another sentence will they move. The story stalls upon a stagnant sea, and I start throwing my hair overboard in violent, bushy tufts.
I am currently moored in the doldrums of writer’s block. Again. I will do anything to avoid looking at my novel-in-progress, including writing this blog post during my designated writing time, of which there is precious little. Those inebriating sentences I loved so dearly days ago have left me with a seasick hangover. They only serve to remind me that the mainsail is torn, the mast splintered, and I alone have the duty to make repairs. Again. It is the same procedure every time. When the story stalls, there is only one place to look, and it is the hardest place to go. I have to descend into the maelstrom of the human heart; I have to get to know my characters.
Of course, I thought I already had. A writer does not persist in telling a story for twenty-something chapters without believing he or she knows the people who inhabit the pages. But it often turns out there is a question I forgot to ask, or an answer my characters hid from me because the truth is painful and ugly. Just now, one woman refuses to tell me how her first husband died. I think she may have some kind of psychosis that altered her memory, but how can I write about it unless she tells me the truth? I wasn’t there! I don’t know!
This sounds like madness, of course, and if you have already given me up for crazy, well, stop reading. It’s only going to get worse.
God does, at least, grant writers a superpower He denies to the rest of the human race. We can time-travel. We have the opportunity to move backward, change the course of history. The problem is, we cannot change it just to suit our current needs. There can be no blithe undoing of wrongs in the style of Quantum Leap. Any writer who molds the past with an eye toward solving current problems will soon find himself swimming in a very shallow sea. We have to use our superpower not like dictators, but like archaeologists: dig deeper, uncover new layers, discover an understanding that enlightens the present moment. We have all read that enlightened moment, the one that is both completely surprising and completely inevitable. It’s when Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius, when Boo Radley emerges to save “his” children, when Snape Avada Kedavras Dumbledore. That moment stuns you to your core, but, slowly, you realize it hadto be that way. It was the only genuine choice that person, in that moment, could have made. That moment is the reason we read fiction; it unravels for us one tiny string in the mysterious knot of human nature.
Fortunately, writers do not have to be Shakespeare or even J.K. Rowling to experience that moment for ourselves. Every character I write is (for a while, at least) my Hamlet, the soul I have to follow into its darkest struggles. A fictional widow is reticent for real reasons, and the slow, painful process of unknotting her psychosis helps me untangle real human motives. Every moment–when I finally get it right–becomes that moment. That is why I persist, even when I have to stare down my own literary shortcomings. Even when I have to excise large chunks of hard-wrought prose to replace them with the truth. Even when I have to play psychotherapist to a widowed villain.
If only conveying that moment to an audience were not a thousand times as hard…
So, now it is back into the doldrums I go, where I shall attempt to paddle my way out of a hackneyed sailing metaphor into something beautiful and good. Can beauty involve sending fairies to un-alter tainted memories? Please…?
If you see something that looks like a dead animal floating by, don’t worry. It’s probably just my hair.