Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alligators and Me

(Originally published on ANWA Founder & Friends, 1/19/09)

A week ago today, I finally decided to stop fiddling with old writing projects, and start work on something new. Well, “new” is a bit relative. I pulled out a story I’d begun several years ago, but with only a few chapters completed, with the intent of finally tackling and finishing this far-from-finished story.

So last Monday, I got up two hours early to review various notes I’d made on the subject, all of them several years old, as I said. To my dismay, I discovered that I had written three different “beginnings”, with a potential of three different “heroines” (at least I knew who my hero was!), and two to three different potential plot lines! For two hours, I stared at my computer screen, trying desperately to make a decision as to a final direction to take the story and commit myself to which heroine my hero was destined to fall in love with. Each potential plot line and heroine seemed to have as many weakness as strengths, and by the end of the my two hour stare-a-thon, I had neither arrived at any decisions nor typed a single new word to get the story moving again. By bedtime, I was still in despair, not knowing whether to take the story “this way” or “that way”. I felt absolutely numb with indecision.

Then as I lay in bed that night, my mind still in turmoil, I remembered a book of writing “inspiration” I’d bought well over ten years ago. The title, Walking on Alligator Eggs: A Book of Meditations for Writers, had intrigued me, but it was flipping open the book and reading the first meditation as I stood in a Borders bookstore, that sealed the deal to buy the book:

The author, Susan Shaughnessy, had written:

Writing can feel like stepping off into thin air. Some of us can write no other way. Not for us, the well-thought-out outline, the step-by-step recipe that brings the project to success. When we try to apply ourselves to such a well-mapped course, we stall out.

We are the writers who start every day walking off a cliff, fearing there are alligators below. Yet somehow we write; and most of the time, we like what we write. The dark place seems less dark when we get there. It was only the journey that was fearful. We emerge back into the light with something precious, something really worth sharing.

Join us as we take the less-lit road, the road that curves into the unknown places.

See what you bring back.

That essay spoke to me then because that’s exactly how all my manuscripts had worked thus far: feeling like I was stepping off a cliff every time I sat down to write, never quite knowing where my characters were going to take me, terrified of the dark place I was walking so blindly into. But Susan Shaughnessy was right. It was rare that a light didn’t appear along the way, and yes, by the end of my writing session, more often than not, I liked what I had written.

So on Tuesday last week, I decided to take Susan’s advice to heart once more. I decided to step off the cliff and ignore the alligators below. I gave up on outlines and road maps, and just started typing, without worrying about where exactly I was headed. On Wednesday, I did the same. By Thursday, I knew who my heroine was. I knew a little more about her motivation and goals. I know her background and how her family wants to manipulate her and why. But there are still cliffs and dark spaces ahead. I don’t know exactly how she and my hero are going to meet up in the story’s time line. I don’t know what will cause them to fall in love. I have a Point A and a Point B I’d like to get both characters to, but I don’t know how I’m going to get them there.

But unlike last Monday, I’m now trying not to let these questions paralyze me because I don’t yet have the answers. Instead, my goal is simply to get up every morning and step off that cliff, trusting that I’ll escape the alligators below and that a light will appear in the darkness to guide me.


Suzanne Barker said...

I like your entry Joyce. It's nice to hear you thinking "out Loud" so to speak. Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

That's just what I needed to hear. Your timing is perfect as I had hit a spot in my novel where all the details were not worked out. Thanks for the advice. I loved Loyalty's Web and am looking forward to your next book.