Writing – The Beautiful Mess

The writer’s palette.

Once upon a time I took painting lessons with an artist friend of mine.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t want anyone to see the beginning stages of my work-in- progress. Why couldn’t I paint like my friend? I wondered.  I wanted it to look pretty from the get go.  But the truth is, painting is a process of layering before you have a finished work of art.

Writing is the same way.  It’s a layering process that takes time and effort.  Yet somehow we seem to think that if we follow all the rules of creating good fiction, everything will work out.  Outline the characters, create the plot, break it down into scenes and chapters, figure out the premise, and try to decide what the message is, and so on.  But even after you have done all the things the book tells you to do, you will still run into some kind of difficulty.  Perhaps your characters won’t perform the way you want them to.  Or the scene you were working your way towards is no longer viable.  The tone of the novel has shifted.  You may even find that the point you wanted to make is not coming across at all.  At this juncture you may be pulling your hair out, not sleeping at night, and become short-tempered with your family.  What can you do?

First of all, take a deep breath.  And keep in mind that you are trying to create a whole new world that is as unruly and unpredictable as real life.  Things are not always going to run smoothly – and that’s OK.  It doesn’t mean you have to throw every out and start again. Sometimes you just need to step away from the computer.

Depending on what kind of beautiful mess you are dealing with, you may simply need to do something else for a while.  When I’m trying to work out details of a book, I find it helpful to iron.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Doing a mundane task takes my mind off where I’m stuck and releases it work on the problem at hand.  Ironing is a repetitive and meditative process that sometimes helps me to sort out details.  You may find you’d rather go for a walk, or out for a coffee with a friend.  The point is, to figure out what works for you.

There have been times when my character won’t do what I want them to.  If you think about it, this is a good thing.  It means that you’ve created such a well-defined character that they now have a mind of their own and won’t perform for you.  I think it would be in your best interest to listen to what they have to say.  They have the inside track after all, and know what will work for the novel and what won’t.  So why not find out what’s what’s on their mind?  You’ll be surprised by the answer. You can have this conversation on the page, or sit them down in front of you and have a dialogue.

There is a little voice inside of you that knows what to do.  Listen to it.  If it means you should take a break from your writing for a while, then do it.  Sometimes, when you step away from a work in progress, things begin to unravel in a good way.  Those tight spots you find yourself in, will loosen their hold on you and make new and exciting connections if you let them.

I recall during a writing workshop, we had to write a story based on six completely unrelated words.  I started to panic.  But because our instructor had created a safe environment in which to experiment, I began to relax.  What I came up with, (rather quickly, I might add) was an amusing story about a woman whose boyfriend was a no show on a planned vacation together.  While sitting on the beach taking in the scenery, the scenery being that great looking lifeguard watching over everyone, she decided, “To hell, with the boyfriend.  I’m not going let him spoil my vacation.”  And well, you can guess how that turned out.  The point is, the mind has a way of taking unrelated topics/ideas and making something out of it if we let it.  So if you need to take some time off, don’t feel guilty.  Your mind will still be processing information and working out the details.  You may find yourself in the shower when an idea hits.  Or laying in bed one night when inspiration hits.

You are in good company.  Author, Anne Lamott, once struggled for months on a book that just wasn’t coming together.  She thought she would have to abandon the project.  But when a friend suggested getting away from it for a while, that is just what she did.  The book she was working on went on to become a best seller.

So don’t give up the struggle.  Sometimes it simply means you are writing something important and just need time to get it right.  Writing is a messy process.  It isn’t easy, and it’s frustrating and time-consuming, with seemingly very little to gain.  Not everyone will be able to make a living at it, or become famous.  But it’s by far, the only thing I want to do. How about you?

Categories: Writer's Notes

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