Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In the Forest of Overwhelm and Un-Knowing, With Only My Tiny Fearful Brain for Company

NB: Whiny existential-angsty post ahead. You may wish to skip this and read something more edifying. No, no need to thank me. I’m a giver.

I suppose every writer finds him- or herself at this place eventually.

Even if, starting a novel, they initially feel (as I did) like a cheetah hot-footing it at 75 mph over the veldt, not even a cheetah can sustain such speeds; they eventually must slow to a trot, then stop.

And sit.

….and sit.

….and, SIT.

When I got home from my trip to Europe at the end of May (it was everything I’d hoped it would be, and then some—thanks for asking!), I felt fired up, ready to get back to work—especially after going to several locations that I’d researched and that were important to my novel; after seeing these places and getting a sense of the history that came along with them, I wanted to bring that element into the story I was telling (through letters written by historical characters), thinking it would give it both emotional weight and narrative impetus. I will say, though, that it was scary as hell to discover that I had to write a secondary narrative that would (hopefully!) dovetail with the main one—as I told friends at the time, it was like turning a page over in the plans to the house you are building, only to find HOLY SHIT THERE’S A WHOLE SECOND STORY HERE! WAIT A DAMN MINUTE—I WASN’T EXPECTING THIS!!—but, since I’d already come this far, I couldn’t just toss my hands up and walk away from the project. I had to try and integrate this new information into my book. I felt I was up to the challenge—even though I didn’t (don’t) have a clue what I was (am) doing, never having attempted a full-length (or any length, really) novel before.

So I did something many writers can identify with: I rolled up my sleeves and dove head-first down the Research Rabbit Hole. HARD. I grabbed every book I could get my hands on at the local library that related to my subject.

(I know that, right now, my high school and college teachers must be sitting in some dive bar somewhere made up to look like the break room at PHS, clinking their glasses and laughing their asses off at the irony of the fact that I’m sitting here doing more homework—on my own time—than my lazy ass could ever be bothered to do for them…)

I was sucking down biographies of Victorian scientists like they were shots of tequila, drunk on the thought that my book was going to be BRILLIANT because I was DOING! MY!! HOMEWORK!!! People were going to READ my novel and LOVE the depth of detail I brought to bear, because dammit, I’d spent HOURS learning about how these men dressed spoke wrote thought ate loved felt, and I KNEW them. I could practically tell you what each of them would have ordered from a restaurant menu; or what their favorite colors were.

I was about a third of the way through my fourth four-hundred-page biography in two months (and the seventh or eighth I’d read in the past year), when, one day, I sat up straight, jolted by a question out of nowhere:

“Hey…why am I doing this? This isn’t directly relevant to my book—in fact, there’s a really good chance NONE of this is going to end up in my novel.”

On its heels, the really uncomfortable question: “Am I just spinning my wheels, avoiding doing the real work?” Or, more accurately, “—the right work?”

Going back to my house metaphor, picture saying “OK! I got this!”, grabbing your hammer, and gamely going ahead with that second story—only to discover your measurements are off. You’re going to have to tear it all down—backtrack, recalibrate, and start again.

So, I did. I tried writing every single scene I’d written so far on a 3x5 card and lining them up on a makeshift storyboard to see if that would jog my muse into action. (The only jogging that happened was me jogging to the fridge for ice to soothe my writers’ cramp.) I reread the story, to see if I still thought it was good (I do. Mostly.) and if THAT might jolt a few more sentences loose. It did, but it was false hope—the narrative limped along for a few feet, then flopped back down again. I went back over the copious notes I’d taken from the books I’d read, in desperate hope that they might inspire me. Nope. All it did was add to the sinking sense that I was way out of my depth—completely inadequate to the enormity of the task I’d set for myself.

I spent the rest of that day—and the next several—surrounded by a buzzing hive of thoughts, questions, and ideas, which I couldn’t make head or tail of: Was I prioritizing the wrong things? Was I completely wasting my time approaching the story from this (3x5 storyboarding) direction? Was I going after the right information? Was I doing the right work? Was there something I was missing in how to organize my research?

…and then the tailspin began: Well, will any of it matter, since I can’t seem to retain any of what I read anyway? Am I just making the 3x5s and reading the biographies as an excuse to avoid admitting that I am well and truly stuck? What the hell am I thinking, that I could actually write historical fiction (even if only a few epistolary bits stuck in between the chapters)?
Of course, Depression/Anxiety Brain, sensing a weak spot, gleefully piled on, saying “What were you thinking, that you could actually write a novel? You can’t do this. You’re not smart enough. You’re WAY too scatterbrained to finish this. You haven’t written anything of substance on this in a year! Leave it to the people who DID their homework in high school, who actually learned how to do research, who have MFAs, who are SMART ENOUGH.”

And I mean, damn, if that didn’t just completely knock the pins out from under me. Initially, the stuck feeling was just that—I felt like I was stuck in the mud, but at least I was still revving my engine. Then the energy ebbed and I was left just sitting, without any momentum at all.

The last few days have been the worst. I feel like I’m walking through a blizzard-ravaged forest—I can’t see where I’m going. I can’t see any resting-place or a way out. I’m numb and thick-headed, and each step is a major struggle. And I mean in everything I try to do—not just writing. The past two days especially have been a dull blur, with my brain flea-hopping from thought to thought, not landing anywhere long enough for me to stay with a project to completion.

But, like walking through a blizzard, I can’t stop—because I don’t have a choice. I’ve chosen this hike through the forest and I can’t turn back, because if I do, I will die (figuratively, if not literally).

Then again, perversely, I suppose I should be proud that I’m here; I’ve read enough to know that the slog through the Forest of Overwhelm and Un-Knowing is archetypal—it’s universal; a place everyone ends up, lost and confused, at one point or another. It’s like “Yes! I’m really part of the sister/brotherhood of writers now!” and I can expect to receive my ‘Bat-Shit Crazy Blocked Writer’ merit badge in the mail any day now. (It’s got a picture of a brick wall on it.)

Oh-one more thing. I’m not sure if it’s connected, unless everything is, but I’ve also noticed that if my conscious mind is on the fritz, my subconscious has been working overtime—I’ve been dreaming every single night this week, when it’s been years since I remembered dreams on a regular basis—I used to be lucky if I remembered one or two a month. Weird, detailed, psychosexual dreams, too—or, alternately, incredibly sweet and comforting dreams (mostly involving Hot British Actors).

So, maybe I just need to learn to trust the process and let my brain rest a bit…while I enjoy the nightly television show and wait for that merit badge to arrive in the post.

Unless anybody has a better idea…


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