First Draft Issue 3: The answer is out there
What if the solution to your writing problem is not on the page—or screen?
Lately my writing life has been very full — with writing, editing, and preparing things for the upcoming launch of my novel Endpapers and revising other projects. But even though I'm feeling grateful and have been enjoying (almost) every minute, I also have a full-time job and a teenage kid. So one frustrating side effect of all this productivity is that it's actually draining my creative energy.
This week I had to change gears for what felt like the hundredth time to get my head back into revising a novel I haven't worked on for many months. I'd been so excited to return to this project, but then every morning last week, after dragging myself out of bed to write before the sun came up, instead I found myself frittering away the time on Twitter or Wordle.
The well had run dry.
This weekend, though, I remembered something wonderful that happened while I was drafting and revising Endpapers. I'd been working on the project for a long time and was losing my excitement. At some point, every time I sat down to work on it, I felt like I was running in place. I wasn't making it better anymore, even though I kept showing up and putting the effort in.
One Friday night I had an obligation at my temple for Shabbat. It was the middle of winter, which in upstate New York is very cold, icy, and dark. And I was tired. I wanted to stay home so that in the morning I'd have more energy to get past the hump with my novel.
But I fought the inertia and went. And as the rabbi spoke, I took in my surroundings — the dark windows around the sanctuary, the light inside, the quiet as the whole congregation listened, the joy as we sang together. I flipped through the siddur, or prayer book, and looked at the Hebrew letters and the English, and as I skimmed, a Shabbat poem caught my eye. I read it through twice and my heart sped up, because I couldn't believe what I'd found. In this meditation was the answer to the problem I'd been having with my novel: I hadn't been able to clearly articulate my main character's central conflict. Now, here it was, right in front of me, expressed beautifully.
The next time I sat down to work, I did so with new focus and motivation. I even wrote a whole chapter in which my main character goes to a temple and finds the same meditation. And throughout the remainder of the book, she repeats part of it as a refrain. It was exactly what I'd needed to get unstuck, and to get her unstuck as well.
I do realize how lucky I was to find the literal answer to my writing problem that night in shul. It's not usually so easy, or clear for that matter. But whether the answer is right there waiting for you in plain sight or it's hiding somewhere deeper, sometimes you have to abandon the work and go outside in order to make a breakthrough.
As a writer or artist — and really just a human — you have to experience the world, to be open to your surroundings and other people and let them affect you and teach you new things, make you see life from different perspectives.
Showing up on a regular basis to sit down and work is essential for finishing a project. But so is taking occasional breaks.
So, for those of us who are feeling stalled (or seriously just all of us!), this week let's use some of our writing time to go outside and take a walk, climb a mountain, grab a cup of coffee and eavesdrop on a conversation, go to a museum, a play, a concert, a movie, another country. Or even hop in the shower.
Let's trust that the answer is waiting for us somewhere else. It may take us time to run into it, but the beauty is that we won't even have to look. If we're just open and attentive to whatever experience we're having, it will find us. And bonus, we're likely to enjoy ourselves!
Good luck, and have fun out there.