Let It Brew
Posted by Elisa Beatty Feb 12 2013, 12:01 am
If you’ve heard any of my recent kvetching, you may know I just finished a 210-page accreditation report for one of the schools where I teach. From early December through last week, I was working as much as eight hours a night after I got home from work, and pulling 13 or 14 hour days on the weekends, no days off. Needless to say, fiction writing just wasn’t happening.
This weekend, though, I was free (well, free after catching up on all the neglected laundry and dishes—honestly, the piles were so high it was like we were playing dish Jenga—and visiting my mother-in-law and going outside with the kids and the dog and seeing the high school musical before it closed and scrubbing that funky new nasty smell out of the bathroom tile and everything else I’ve ignored while chained to what I now fondly refer to as “that $@#&$@#^!!! report.”)
And I got back to fiction writing.
And I did feel a little rusty at first, seeing as I hadn’t touched my story since the end of NaNoWriMo.
In fact, I hadn’t given it a single conscious thought while I was up to my ears in bureaucratic lingo and charts and graphs and educational data. Not to mention that, at the end of NaNo, I was pretty fried. I’d been banging away at the story for 30 days whether I felt inspired or not, and by November 30, the unfinished edges felt dry and frayed, and there was no juice left for moving to the next part.
But as I sat down this Saturday and read through the story again, a curious thing happened: I realized it had grown in my head even as I was completely ignoring it.
I understood the characters better, I knew what still had to happen, and I was full of ideas for finishing my half-finished scenes.
Reminds me vaguely of my athletic days, when for one reason or another I’d skip playing tennis for a couple weeks, and when I came back found I was playing better than when I stopped.
Maybe this is just my ADHD at work, but maybe there’s something more to it.
It just so happens I’m in the midst of reading a book recommended by a non-romance writer friend: David Corbett’s The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. Early on in the book, Corbett talks about the mysterious places our characters originate, and the way an initial vague and ghostly impression slowly grows into a fully-formed human being.
He talks about discovering the true depths of his characters just by sitting down and writing scenes of conflict for them, but he also acknowledges the role of the unconscious mind: “What returns to me the morning after I [stop writing]…for the day is often richer and more concrete than what I left behind.”
He goes on to quote the psychologist William James (Principles of Psychology, Chapter 4, “Habit”), who said we learn how to skate in the summer and how to swim in the winter–i.e., when we can’t actually physically do those things. Corbett explains James’s insight this way:
he meant that only after arduous and often futile conscious effort does our unconscious have what it needs to help us solve a new and difficult problem—a problem we will, ironically, solve once we step away from it. The same is true of characterization. Only by diligent and often frustrating effort, working out the specifics of a character’s history, circumstances, and situation, can we supply the unconscious with the raw material it needs, raw material it will fashion into something less clumsy and deliberate, more organic.
So THAT’s what I was doing.
Anyhow, if you’re working away on the Winter Writing Festival right now, and sometimes feeling like you’re just flogging a lifeless story, keep on going until you’ve got as much out on paper as you can manage. And then step back and take a break. (Though I don’t recommend writing a 210-page accreditation report. I’m sure you can find a much healthier use of your time. Like maybe starting that next story that’s feeling fresh and exciting and luring you on.)
When you come back, your unconscious will have done lots of good work for you. (And you should reward it. With chocolate. The unconscious mind is really into chocolate.)
Anyone else have this experience? Are your stories richer after you’ve stepped away for awhile?