Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Valleys, Mountains, and Landings - Part 1

Sharon Wildwind

Are the kids back in school where you live? I mean, really back in school, not in the back-to-school phase? Somewhere past the new clothes, new haircuts, new backpacks and into sensible breakfasts, homework after supper, and schedules posted on the refrigerator door?

I wish I was.

I’m in that valley between books. The latest one is at the publisher. Nothing I can do about it now. The next one is an amorphous blob of swirling mist and, since I’m at the end of a series, the mist is particularly cold and dense right now.

I am never going to write another thing in my life. The creative well has dried. I managed to fool people into thinking I was a writer for five books, but I won’t get away with it any more. I could call my friend Candas and tell her all of this, but she’d roll her eyes (I know she’d do that even over the phone) and say, “Get over yourself.”

What I need is one hard image, a moment suspended in time, which I recognize as a pivot point in the next story I must tell. The characters must be irrevocably changed after this moment. In an unpublished trilogy I wrote it was a man saying one word, a woman’s name. I knew that his life and hers had joined in that one word and that if they thought they had seen hard times before it was nothing compared to the hard times that lay ahead.

In that pesky book now at the publisher it was a line that never made it into the book, a furious Pepper screaming, “Lead, follow, or get out of my way.” Other characters parted around her like the Red Sea, giving her a straight shot to the book’s climax.

When I find a moment like that I want to give up writing. I know, in the depth of my bones, that I’ve just irrevocably committed the next one to three years of my life. There is no escape, no turning back. Somehow I’ve melded with something that doesn’t even exist yet, and I won’t rest until it does exist.

For the next three weeks, I’m writing about writers and our need for different kinds of time. This week it’s the time we need at the start of a major project.

When we are beginning a major project, the first thing we need is time to sleep. I’m not talking about collapsing for hours under the covers, but at least once a week, we need to sleep an extra hour. On Daylight Savings Time, we might need to sleep two extra hours. The reason is that our bodies run on a 25-hour cycle. Getting extra sleep one morning a week resets our body’s internal rhythms.

We need time to do research. Announcing that we are taking time for research comes easier for many writers than justifying the other types of time I’m talking about today. “I’m off to Majorca to do research,” slips easily from our mouth to be greeted by our friends’ jealous groans. Don’t we wish? More often, it’s “I’m off to the archives to strain my eyes at the microfiche reader,” but even our non-writing friends understand that writers must do research.

We need time to be inspired, which is completely different than doing research. Research fills our notebooks. Inspiration fills our hearts. Think of collecting inspiration as being akin to a sailing ship taking on provisions before the crew sets out on an around-the-world journey. We need to start our book journey with our creative quartermaster stores filled to the brim.

However we organize our new creative project; whether it’s in notebooks, folders, or on an electronic writing program, devote a section to Inspiration. Start filling that section by making a list of 25 to 50 activities that inspire. Collect quotes and pictures.

Set-up treats ahead of time. One year my family gave me a tea subscription. Every two months, a small package of tea arrived. Some months that little gift was just the boost I needed to keep going. You might pre-purchase gift cards for yourself, or season tickets to the recreation of your choice, or set up a dozen envelopes with a little mad money in each one, to be used in the future for small treats when the writing is either going terrific or really, really rotten. The idea is that creative people desperately need good things to look forward to on a regular basis, so we have to pre-prime the creative pump by assuring ourselves in advance of a string of treats.

Most of all, when we are beginning a new project, we need time to hear ourselves think. That is often the hardest time to for other people to grant to us.

First graders were presented with two pictures. In one a man hoed his garden. In the other he sat back in a chair with his hands behind his head, staring into space. The children were asked, “Which man is working?”

One first-grader selected the man staring into space and could not be dissuaded to change her mind. Her father was a writer. She recognized that sitting back in a chair, staring into space was work for some people. We should all be so lucky in our family and friends.

As writers standing on the precipice of a new project, the most deadly line we can hear begins, “As long as you’re not working on anything right now . . .” My advice here is simple. Lie. Outright lie if you need to. “But I am working on something. I started my new novel last week and I’m already up to my eyebrows in research and outlining. Then go to your office, set your telephone to voice mail, and sit in your chair with your hands behind your head, staring into space. Believe me, it’s time to get to work.

Quote for the week:
If you have a choice between spending money and spending time, spend money. You can always make more money, but you will never be given more time.
~unattributed (If you know who said this, please let me know)


Sandra Parshall said...

Getting started on something new is the hardest part of writing for me, because I can't see the whole story -- therefore I have trouble making myself believe a whole story exists, waiting to be written down. I'd rather be at any other point in the writing than at the beginning. Yet many other writers think the beginning is the most exciting stage. They're crazy, IMO. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Sandra. Until I have that spark I doubt that is a story, or that I will be able to create one.

Julia Buckley said...

I can SO relate to that void between books, Sharon! And yet the waiting period for a new moment of connection is pleasurable, in a weird way.

Plus you get some resting time. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I envy those writers who claim their heads are so full of stories that they go straight from the end of one to the beginning of the next.