In the Fog at Night, with a Flashlight…

Fig with flashlight-2I’ve been working on a new story, but suddenly I’ve been away from it for a couple of weeks, and now I’m wallowing in doubts. When that happens, I start thinking about things like –where do our stories come from? That’s a question authors often hear from readers at book signings. Do we pluck them out of the ether? Are they gifts? Can we explain how two different thoughts may suddenly connect like flint and steel to spark a story inspiration? If we knew how it works, would it help us when we get stuck? Would it help us write faster? Better?

Since everyone’s creative process works differently, there’s no one answer, anyway, but visualization is most certainly part of it. At a recent workshop at my local writers group (RIRW), the subject was self-hypnosis, on the theory that improving ourselves also improves our writing. It was fascinating and covered a great deal, but one thing that struck me was the great similarity between the techniques of meditation and visualization that were presented by the speaker and the process of story creation. We joke a lot about writers staring off into space and claiming we’re working, but really, that “daydreaming” about our characters and what is happening to them is a lot like a self-induced hypnotic state. The relaxation required to get there helps open our creative receptors and allows the imagination to pull up the sights and sounds and people and events our stories grow from. Like most skills, it improves the more we practice it.

Some writer friends of mine who are very prolific tell me they are able to “skip around” in their stories, writing whatever scene they can ‘see” and eventually fitting all those pieces together. Often they have a view of the entire story, and can put the plot down on paper or even write a more-or-less detailed outline. I have to say I envy that ability! I am a linear writer. Until I know what the characters have done and said in the present scene, I don’t know what they are going to do later on. When it comes to work styles, writers are often classified as “planners” or “pantsers” (pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants” instead of by a map), but most writers fall somewhere in between, a combination. Those who can “see” most or all of their story undoubtedly can be “planners”. How lovely to have a road map!! Many of us –however much we wish otherwise– can’t see that far ahead. I always liken my process to that phrase you read above in the title –stumbling along in the fog at night armed with only a flashlight.

Writing is an act of faith –always. When you can only see a little bit at a time, it becomes a huge act of faith. You get stuck in blind alleys and have to back out. You always hope the path you are following is the right one, the one that will lead to a satisfying ending, the center of the maze. You have to believe there is a reason you were given this story idea in the first place!

The Artists Way coverThere are two resources I often turn to in times of doubt. One is The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. I believe the creative process is also spiritual, and the program of self-examination and inspiration this book lays out helps you to find and reinforce that connection. The other is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, one of the best books of advice for writers. I can open this book to any page and be comforted, inspired, and amused all at once, but the advice to take the writing “bird by bird” (one small thing at a time) is huge when the job starts to appear overwhelmingly impossible.

Bird by BirdIf you write, what do you when a spell of doubting happens to you? Are you a planner or a pantser, or a combination? What resources do you turn to when your faith needs to be bolstered? Have you read the ones I mentioned? If you’re a reader, have you ever asked authors where their ideas came from? If you have, what answers did you get?

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Elena Greene
8 years ago

I used to think I was somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I would start with a general outline but then deviate. More recently my process has become “do whatever you feel like doing today, as long as you are working on your story.” Not quite the stuff of workshops but it seems to be working for me. I don’t have as much writing time as I’d like, but what time I have feels happy and productive.

I use both of the books you mentioned. I also find that journaling and meditation help me see things more clearly.

Gail Eastwood
8 years ago
Reply to  Elena Greene

“Whatever works for today” sounds like a good method, Elena –not just for writing, but maybe also for getting through life in general!! Feeling happy and productive is the very best end result!!

Louisa Cornell
8 years ago

I use both of those books as well. I have previously been a pantser who must write linearly, but I have been coming up against a brick wall eight chapters in so I am basically using whatever works. Scenes and snatches of dialogue come to me all the time, usually at the most inconvenient of times! I keep index cards with me at all times and jot these things down as they come to me. Then I try to figure out where they come in the story. My biggest issue, the one that is keeping my books from exciting an editor enough to do more than read the first three chapters, is conflict – or lack thereof. Writing as a pantser I simply don’t have enough conflict going on in my books (or so I am told,) so I am currently working on plotting my conflict and making certain it is big and bad enough or insidious and internal enough to carry the book to the end. Wish me luck!

Gail Eastwood
8 years ago
Reply to  Louisa Cornell

I do wish you luck, Louisa! It sounds as though you have a handle on it, and you are way ahead of those who don’t even know that conflict is something they might need to work on! 🙂
The index card thing always seems like a good idea, except for those times when your ideas come while you’re in the shower!! While I admit to being a pantser, I have to say that before I start I need a good enough idea of my characters, their conflict, and their internal journey to be sure there really is a story there to be told.

8 years ago

I have only done scientific writing, but in some ways, it is creative. The general plot, of course, depends on the forum you intend to address: a journal article requires a much different approach than an extension bulletin. Within that, though, you have your own plot, including how you actually did things, which is linear in appearance, within a single experiment. Often, when you examine an author’s output, it becomes a lot like a series of linked books, with certain characters being developed. Sometimes ad nauseam!

Gail Eastwood
8 years ago
Reply to  patty

Patty, what an interesting way to look at your scientific writing! I agree that ALL writing is creative. It is always a search for the best way to communicate something. I wrote non-fiction for many years, but as a journalist, not a scientist. I really admire you for having the skills and talent to do the scientific work and also write about it!

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