Pain and Passion and Blocking

Pain. Passion. Blocking.

I’ve written lots of pain and passion into this little story of mine. But this morning I didn’t really want to write. The characters are moving inexorably toward the climax, but I still don’t see a clear path there, and there is so much exposition necessary. We have recently moved into a new environment, a cave city, which requires describing, and the characters must learn about it before they can do anything in it. And I have to learn about it, too, before I can tell what they do in it. One of the characters elsewhere has entered a long, lonely phase of inventing something. How do you write interestingly about inventing something? I don’t know. It’s not really my job to know that, is it? I mean, maybe it is, but maybe it’s just my job to know when something isn’t interesting and take that part out and skip ahead to the good bits. Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.

Still have to write something, though. So this morning, thinking these thoughts, I dutifully arose and headed to the computer. Ignored the distractions of a thousand blinking notifications. Recorded my time and word count (62,743, 6:30 am), opened my Word document, stared at my screen. The usual.

Remember how I said I ignored the notifications? I didn’t actually ignore them. I read them all first, because, well, that’s why I have to get up at 5am in order to get an hour’s worth of writing in before my first appointment at 9 (that, and this blog). Anyway. One of the things in my notifications was this:

Nabokov on Inspiration

Read it and come back. It’s worth it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so I read that, and I thought, “Gee-eez. No pressure or anything.” It’s so much clearer when it’s just “sit down and write at the same time every day, butt to chair, butt to chair.” THAT I can do, you know, it’s not easy but you just do it.

But now I have to do that AND get inspired, have aura-things happen to me, and be ready to grab them at the exact moment they occur. How, exactly, am I supposed to do that? What if the inspiration comes–as it often does–when I’m in the middle of a deadline at work? Or in a meeting? Or in the car? Then it is lost forever. Like I need one more thing to worry about.

Poor, poor Samuel. How I ache for him, in losing the rest of Kubla Khan. Just a knock at the door and POOF.

(Note to Carey: Please don’t even kiss me goodbye in the middle of my flow/inspiration, please, and don’t leave without kissing me either. You just have to know when I’m in flow and when I’m not, and kiss me when I’m not, okay? Is that so much to ask?)

Not that I would necessarily know anything about inspiration, because according to Nabokov, I’ve never actually been inspired. Ever. I have never in my life felt this “aura-thingy,” which apparently all true writers learn to distinguish as children. I’m almost 40. So. You know. Maybe I shouldn’t bother?

So I’m sitting in front of my screen, resisting the temptation to spend the entire hour re-reading my whole story so far (could it even all be read in an hour at this point?), to decide if it’s worth continuing, and convincing myself that it’s not, because one of my characters is recognizably similar to a famous character from a famous novel (my KIDS pointed this out to me). I am obviously a shitty writer and should really just stop before wasting any more time.

But I remember Anne’s advice, and I say, “Okay. What do I have to do to make this story interesting to ME?” And it doesn’t take long for me to know what has to happen. And then I get excited. And then I get frustrated. Because, you know, now I have to figure out where they each are when this thing happens, how it happens. I have to STAGE it, like a director arranging actors on the stage, I have to know which direction they’re each facing when it happens, how they’re standing in relation to one another so it all comes out looking natural while still showing you what you want to see. In theater, they call it blocking.

And I have to decide whose point of view it will be told in this time. It’s such a critical scene, and I really MUST get it right. Will it be from her point of view, watching from the sidelines? His, from the center of the action? The other hers, seeing everything anew at once, the sights and emotions jumbled and overwhelming?

And how desperately I want someone to tell me. And why shouldn’t they? There are hours of video, thousands of pages, millions of words, of writers giving advice to writers. How to start, how to overcome writer’s block, how to get published, how to write dialog, how to use the active voice, how to do everything under the sun and not one of those pieces of advice tells me which character should tell this part of the story. Seriously, authors. Get it together.

So I just had to go it alone. And it turned out, I never even wrote the scene I wanted so desperately to write. I spent my entire hour setting it up, placing the characters just so (oh, I know, I should say, “waiting until my characters reached the scene,” or “watching my characters move toward this climax,” because we all know the characters have lives of their own and we writers are not really puppet masters so much as bystanders with a pen, but the truth is, sometimes the characters tell you WHAT will happen, but then leave you to figure out exactly HOW it will happen, and then you have to tell them where to be and when, so they can do the things they know they must do).

And so I trudged. I didn’t quite get to that scene of my pain and passion. Just the set-up. I know where they’re each standing when it happens, and how they got there, what direction each is looking. Each of them has told their own little snippet of the set-up scene, each one ending with a cliff-hanger: “Then something extraordinary happened that drove all those thoughts out of her head…”

And, having brought all three to this point and set them up around the stage, the moment itself, of course, will be his. Because he is the one who will be most caught off-guard, most astonished, most set off balance by it. He also has the best view of the action. Blocking.

And tomorrow, I will write that scene. I can hardly wait. The anticipation is delicious. Tomorrow, the characters will do what they will do, and all I have to do is write it down: Bystander with a pen.

And isn’t this moment, this precise moment, exactly parallel to our own lives as writers? We bring our characters to the right place at the right time, and then let them do what they will do, and, eventually, after many tears and tearings of hair, it happens. Likewise, we bring ourselves to the right place, this chair, this keyboard, at the right time (for me it’s at least an hour before the kids arise), and do what we must do… we set the stage, as many times as we must, through as many tears and tearings of hair as necessary, and then: It happens.

And how I want to share IT with you! I want to tell you their names, their precious, beautiful names. The names I repeat to myself throughout the day, saying each one over again, rolling them around inside my head, smiling because I love them so. much. But I can’t, not yet. It’s a rule. They’re mine right now, and I will gift them to you when they are ready for you. We’re still getting the blocking right.

P.S. Listen to J.K. Rowling talk about staging McGonagall–and about writing a scene wrong the first time (really, watch it, please, it’s less than two minutes. I’m sorry you have to click through, darn WordPress for not displaying embed code properly, for websites insisting on exclusive content–haven’t they heard intellectual property is dead in the age of the Internet?–Anyway, you won’t be sorry, it’s beautiful).

2 thoughts on “Pain and Passion and Blocking

  1. I recommend Susanna Clark for how to write interestingly about ANYTHING gauche. Not sure if you’ve read Jonathan Strange or not (I notoriously forget if people have read this; I think because it’s such a personal book for me), but it’s 1 of the 2 books Lev Grossman studied while writing The Magicians. I mean, girl can kill it. KILL it. Anything most would consider dull. Example: Chapter 14, which you can read out of context and has nothing much to do with anything related to the plot, is simply breathtaking. And you know, there’s whole chapters about Mr. Norrell suddenly deciding he wants to start an editorial and other such gauche subjects.

    Love that McGonagall clip.

  2. Pingback: That Magic Moment When You Say, “Well, This Sucks” | Writer for Life

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