The relationship began three winters ago.
Driving a country road in the early dusk, I hit a deer–or as a knowledgeable friend suggested afterward, a deer hit me. A buck with branching antlers leaped from the trees on one side of the road, attacked the hood of my car with an ear-splitting crunch, then disappeared into the trees on the other.
The car, which I was barely able to steer home, was almost totaled, my neck ached from whiplash, but all I could think about was the deer and the fact that I may have fatally injured a sentient being bigger than I. I retraced my route, trying to remember where exactly it happened but saw no remains of an animal at the side of the road nor vultures circling above the woods. As a writer, though, I am hopelessly attracted to destabilizing experiences and the challenge of containing them in words and literary form.
I couldn’t resist pouring all the confusing details of the accident into a rough narrative. In the short term, the process helped me feel better, enough that I got interested in a longer term relationship. For the facts kept hinting at further possibilities in the wings–a narrator was emerging who wasn’t me at all; unexpected strangers were forcing difficult choices on her; a ghost showed up. What began as a journal entry has since grown into a book entitled Things Too Big to Name, due to be released by in the spring. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The perfect story of my desires did not just materialize overnight. For a while, I kept opening the file, trying things, and watching them fizzle. At some point, I decided the intrusive ghost had sabotaged the story, and I broke up with the project for months. When I did get together with the file again in an idle moment, I realized I’d been denying the obvious: the narrative was balking at being imprisoned in a short story because it wanted to be a novel. I bowed to its wishes, and the two-plus years that followed settled into the familiar, obsessive pattern of the writing life: each day a roller-coaster of manic delight and depressing doubt. There were moments of gratitude for the gifts of inspiration and long stretches of simply gutting it out.
The all-consuming relationship that develops between writer and work is not unlike an intense relationship with a special person, someone you care for deeply, who thus has the ability to delight, even complete you, but also to disappoint and enrage. I wonder if understanding that similarity might offer helpful insight to writers trying to get through a sense of being blocked.
Writing projects usually begin with a bright idea–something you experience or witness that flashes with promise. Sometimes it comes with a fully formed sentence or even a paragraph that whispers its need for your hand. You sense the same sort of promise when you meet a person who triggers a complex chemistry of curiosity and need. In that early stage of attraction, both writing and bonding feel almost effortless, transformative.
But the glow can wear off a new friend. You uncover things you don’t agree on, annoying habits, and the connection starts feeling burdensome, maybe even invasive. Similarly, the burst of creative energy that inspired you to start writing eventually peters out. You become aware of the time and effort required in carrying on. Maybe you’ll have to do some research, craft a scene you’re not interested in, move in a direction you never intended. In both sorts of relationship, greater commitment might well require you to give up other opportunities. Sticking with the person, or the work might pressure you to leave your comfort zone.
To reassert your freedom, you might scrub out on plans with a friend. Or you might invent reasons to mothball your writing project. You fall prey to doubt: is this person really right for you; is this subject really what you wanted to write about? Trust falters—what if you invest your love in this person who then abandons you; what if this piece of writing doesn’t go anywhere? What if you invest all this energy and have nothing to show for it but pain and frustration?
Over time, though, we learn that intimacy brings difficult days as well as times of effortless communion. And we learn options for navigating a relationship through the rough patches. Mostly it takes courage, fortified by conversation–honest self-disclosure and attentive listening.
If you view your writing as another form of intimacy, you accept the unproductive days as an integral part of the process; you maintain trust in your creative ideas and hang in there with your commitment to them. As with a friend or lover, this takes courage and a willingness to drill down into mind and heart and bring what’s been kept dark to light. It also, paradoxically, takes a willingness to listen without preconceptions to what you have written. Each time you read over a draft, ask yourself, What is the work trying to tell me? Does it want to be a novel? Does it want a minor character to be a hero? Does it want me to embrace that ghost?
The sentences that you yourself wrote will disclose both needs and treasures you were not consciously aware of. In fact, the earlier you can begin treating your work as a separate entity with a life of its own, the happier and more cooperative it will be! Valentine’s Day is a fine time to start being flexible, responsive, even loving to what our own words have to say.