Recently, I was chatting about writing to a group of creative writers at GO DEEP, a writing and yoga retreat in the Sierra Nevadas. We read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” an excerpt from Bird by Bird, her excellent book about writing, and I was struck again by how writing can be so mentally taxing, full of doubts and insecurities and second guesses.
If you’ll pardon the language, quite often it’s a mind-f***.
Maybe it’s like all creative endeavors in this way. (I can only imagine, since I’m not a sculptor or painter or musician, and my recent triumph in this area was painting one wall in my bedroom a slightly darker shade than the other three. Risk-taker, right here.) There’s a nagging practical side of our minds that is right there to swoop in with all the reasons why what we want to do creatively is not going to work, and is simply not worth our time.
I call these the demons. There’s the “I’m not good enough” demon and the “No one will ever want to read this” demon and (this one may be unique to me) the “I should just give up and take that paralegal certification course” demon. Like many and maybe all other writers, I’ve faced these demons at various stages in the writing process—they’ve been there to stop me from getting started; they’ve stopped me from going far enough; they’ve stopped me from finishing.
An ugly truth that I hated to pass on to my yoga/writing cohorts was that these demons aren’t battled once and overcome. In a way, they’re like the moles in the whack-a-mole games, rearing their ugly heads over and over. The only thing you can do is learn to fight back.
The only thing you can do is bat them off with a giant padded mallet.
After my first two novels were published, I thought (rather naively) that I had this writing thing down. I imagined that the next book I wrote would spring from my head fully formed, the characters developing and the plot coming together rather effortlessly. Basically, I’d tricked myself. I’d grown cocky. I’d fallen back on what Lamott calls “the fantasy of the uninitiated”.
What happened, as I was writing The Drowning Girls, was that I got stuck. I had good ideas, but they seemed to go nowhere. My manuscript was inching along and my deadline seemed to be galloping closer, and I was getting desperate. If throwing time at the problem was the solution, the problem would have been solved. At one point, in a six-week burst of madness, I set my alarm clock for 3:55 a.m. so I could brew a cup of coffee and be writing by four.
And still, I was stuck.
After a while, I began to resent my characters, and I suspected the feeling was mutual. The demons were there in full force, telling me I should just give up already. I should put the story to the side and do something useful, like organize my bedroom closet. I should admit defeat, man up and move on.
And then a funny thing happened. My husband and I had planned our fifteenth anniversary trip, and we were flying from San Francisco with a final destination of Halifax, Nova Scotia. True to form, by the time our flight took off, Will was snoring beside me, and I was trapped in a window seat with nothing to do but think about my story. I pulled out a notebook and started jotting down all the little things I wanted to fix, to add or delete or move.
Then I had an idea. If I were at home, in my regular writing routine, I would have dismissed the idea as a waste of valuable creative time. But because I was basically trapped on a plane, prevented by a dozen neuroses from taking a nap, there was no good reason not to indulge this idea.
So I did. I took out my black and white composition notebook and I wrote a scene from my novel from the point of view of another character. There was something exciting and freeing about this, even more so than whacking a mole with a giant padded mallet. I wrote until my hand cramped. I wrote through two drink services and muffled announcements about turbulence. I wrote until the stewardess tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to put my tray in the locked and upright position, because holy cow, we were landing.
I wrote until I found the heart of the story, and I found myself miraculously, deliciously unstuck.
I learned a valuable lesson from this, and I hope it’s one I don’t have to be on a plane headed to Nova Scotia to remember in the future. Stories have the potential to go many ways, to follow many whims. I’d been thinking too practically, too linearly, so focused on a deadline that I was shutting out that inner creative voice—the small one with the good ideas that is so easily overpowered.
Sometimes, to get unstuck, you have to step outside of your head, and maybe even outside of the story.
Sometimes, you just have to let go.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Paula Treick DeBoard is a writer, latte drinker and all-around slave to public education. Her first novels—written in the back seat of a 1977 Chevy Caprice station wagon where her parents let her jostle around, unprotected by a seatbelt—were sadly lost in one cross-country move or another.
The Mourning Hours (2013) was her first novel to survive. Paula is also the author of The Fragile World (2014) and The Drowning Girls (April 2016).
She holds a BA in English from Dordt College and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She breaks up the monotony of staring at her laptop screen for long hours with her teaching commitment as a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced. Her heart—and any remaining spare time—belongs to Will and their four-legged brood.