Writing a Novel: The Ebb and Flow of Creativity

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What I’m about to tell you is no secret. It is not groundbreaking. But I vehemently believe it’s important and so must be told, even if it is only a reminder.

Creativity is a wellspring that must be filled.

December and January were prolific months for my novel. I was connecting with the characters and their comical banter surged through my fingertips like a downpour. And I won’t lie; it was wonderful. I found a rhythm, and I was excited to see where it would lead.

Then, the worst kind of reality happened. Yep, that one.

Writer’s block.

(And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t miss the irony. What was my last blog post about? Oh, just combating writer’s block. HA.)

I had reached a transition in my novel. A scene that would change nearly all of my characters and catapult the plot forward. Beyond this, it’s a technical scene—one that I have zero clue how to construct. In my mind, this scene exists only in predetermined, automated movements, each action an awkward robot. (Think C-3PO running across Tatooine.) In other words, I’m missing the beauty. I can’t find the way or the words to make this scene the epic and eloquent foray it should be. (And yes, I know most of this will come in editing. Still doesn’t make it any less intimidating.)

Following the advice of my past self, I should have taken a breath and plunged into the arctic depths, writing the scene however choppy it would’ve been. But, I didn’t. I let if fester. And that, along with the ever-typical busyness of life, has dried the fount of creativity I had a few months ago.

Even writing this blog post was exhausting. Composing emails at work burdensome. I swear, even my texts are suffering. I feel artistically empty, nothing from which to draw inspiration and imagination. And short of a muse, I’m forced to find my own.

So, how do I restock my creativity? By reading, of course.

As obvious as this is, I find it truly works for me. I’ve taken three writing retreats in my life (highly recommended, by the way), and at the start of each, I was naively ready to tear through chapter upon chapter only to find I was spending more time staring at the wall than I was at the hollow Word document. And each time, without fail, I turned to a novel, spending a full day engulfing the story, thirsty as a desert wanderer.

And let me be clear here—reading for the sake of writing, of producing, will not cure what ails you. This strategy has helped me, I believe, only because I was reading for the sake of reading. It was self-care. It was the inexplicable joy of discovering a story page by page. And the laughter, the tears, the love I derived from and for these fictitious people and their make-believe worlds replenished my soul and my ability to create.

So, my wish for you is simple: Take care of yourselves. Go to yoga, stroll through an art museum, play a round of golf, or ride to the top of a Ferris wheel and feel the moonlight on your upturned face. Fall into a story. Fill that wellspring.

Then, ever so coolly, open your laptop and begin.

Pierce Brown’s Thoughts on Writer’s Block

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Brown on the left. Yours truly on the right.

While attending a book signing for Pierce Brown’s third installment in the Red Rising Trilogy this week, an audience member asked him about a topic that often plagues creatives: Writer’s Block.

Brown’s admitted he experienced severe writer’s block while writing the book we were all there to celebrate. His solution was a practical, simple, and one that I believe merits respect. Far more eloquently than I’m able to recreate it here, Brown said this: At some point, you have to stop [weighing the options] and make a decision.

It’s easy for us to obsess over finding the perfect answer, the rainstorm in our drought, and wait for a magic-filled epiphany. But sometimes, the best thing you can do for the sake of your craft is make a decision and move forward.

And here is the beauty of the art we call ours: We can change it. If the solution to your plot hole or character development doesn’t fit, you can rework it. To write is to rewrite. Again and again. Because no one, not even the best writers, get everything right the first time. We’re exploring our world, our imaginations, and the worst thing writer’s block does is hinder this momentum. So don’t let it.

Commit to a decision, a solution. And if it’s not right for your piece, that’s all right. You get to try again, each time more informed than the last.

Stories and Storytellers: What Moved Me in 2015

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To-date, I’ve read 31 (and a half) books this year. That may not be a lot for you, but for me, it’s quite the achievement. And of these 31.5, many moved me.

While beautiful technical victories of character development and diction and so on, these stories stuck to my memory like static cling because of what the stories provoked in me. And I can’t let them go.

So, why am I telling you this? This is not an A+B=C blog post. Instead, as it is the end of the year, a time upon which we reflect, I wanted to share the favorites of my favorites with you. And I’m not going to talk about their brilliant writing techniques—of which there are plenty. Instead, I’m going to tell you why they moved me, in hopes that they might move you too.

I’ll Give You the Sun & The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

I’m obsessed with these books. Lapped them up like melting ice cream on a hot day. In fact, I actually listened to both of the books while on separate business trips that required me to drive long hours alone. And you know it’s a good book when you get to your destination and are sad to leave the car. So, why did I love Nelson’s books? While the coming-of-age stories were wonderful, the way in which she tells the stories is exquisite. It’s downright stunning. She has a way of writing her teenage characters with such vigor and color and poise that her words changed me. I felt charged with the reckless youth of my former self, and the world around me was a bright opportunity for adventure.

I believe the power of her books consists of more than her ability to write characters with a strong voices or her use of strong dialogue (both of which she’s obviously spectacular at doing). After all, I’ve read books with stellar voice and realistic dialogue before, but I’ve never had this kind of visceral reaction to a story.

I wanted to stick my head out the car window and scream sweet nothing into the streaming night air, I wanted to sneak out of my own house, meet friends on the merry-go-round and get drunk on cheap rose wine, I wanted to live.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay & Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

These books are very, very different. The former is a heart-wrenching story of woman’s kidnapping, fight for survival, and then fight to find normalcy, and in the latter, our world is struck by a deadly flu that kills 99.9% of the population and how the .01% learns to move forward and start again. But here’s why I can’t get either of them out of my head, (SPOILER ALERT) neither can move on, not really.

Gay’s protagonist experiences…honestly, it’s hard to even talk about it. Just know, it’s brutal. And her character is not okay. Not by a long shot. Even in the last pages of the book, after fighting for years to regain a sliver of the life she had, the woman she was before she was kidnapped, she (SPOILER) sees her attacker and unravels. The end.

At first, I was angry. I was rooting for her! I cared about her! How could all or her hard work be gone just like that? I was venting to a friend about it one day, a friend who had also read the story, and she just looked at me—and with that look, I was undone. Here’s why this story matters: Gay so gracefully, tactfully, and honestly portrayed trauma in a way I have never read or experienced before. I believe she is respectful but true to what so many people go through. And in this world, well, I don’t have to tell you—people are not always okay. Things happen, and it changes them. Sometimes you can’t go back. There may only be a different future. A new normal.

Similarly, that’s why I also keep returning to Station Eleven, except in this case, instead of one character going through physical and mental trauma, it is an entire world that has changed and the select few who must somehow continue living. This story isn’t one about survival: it’s about starting over and about how to keep a microscopic piece of civilization, of history, of art alive. Can you imagine? Losing not only necessities like electricity, medicine, pre-packaged food, but also losing thousands of years of history, culture, customs, language, stories. Furthermore, can you imagine knowing what you lost? Knowing there used to be such a thing called the Internet, but having no idea of to bring it back from the grave?

One of the main characters we follow is part of a traveling symphony. A group of musicians and actors that move from town to town, giving Beethoven and Shakespeare back to a world that hasn’t heard music or tales of woe in 20 years—and just like that, I was struck by the beauty of such a simple thing. Repeatedly, I found myself in their shoes, grieving with the characters, wondering with them, and wandering with them. And I was bizarrely grateful, in this fictional world, to know that Beethoven’s 9th and A Midsummer Night’s Dream survived. It’s been five months since I finished the story, and I’m still grateful the violin lived.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Doerr’s prose leaves you bruised with life and beauty and—if you’re a writer—jealousy. But this isn’t why his story moved me. Throughout the novel, he moves back and forth between the two main characters, a young boy growing up in Germany under Hitler’s influence in the 1930s and a young blind girl living in France during the upcoming and eventual war. Back and forth like a game of tennis, we get their stories in snapshots. Until, finally, in the eleventh hour when their paths ever so briefly cross.

The moments between them are an innocent reprieve from the loveless world from which they both came and to which they must return. This is why I can’t them go. Separately, they’re great characters. I loved them, and wished them well. But because of who they became for each other, even if it was only for a handful of pages, I can’t forget them. Each is memorable for his and her actions toward and with the other.

Now what?

So, you’re asking yourself, how do I do this? What do I take away from this besides a to-read list? Honestly, I’ve no idea. I’m still learning too. And like I mentioned earlier, I could dissect some of the technical achievements of their works, and perhaps I’ll do that another day, but I think that would be missing the bigger opportunity. I fell in love with these stories because they brought out something true in me and what I believe are some of the truest pieces of what it means to be human.

Something about these stories has punctured the piece of myself that only music can speak to. The emotions, the soul those melodies alone evoke.

So, in 2016, find those stories for you and let them move you. After all, what’s the point of all of this if these things don’t change us? So, go. Find your violin.

 

 

 

 

My truths regarding writing a novel

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I’ve always been a good thinker. And by thinker, I mean I’m good at reflection. I’m introspective. Always have been. Give me an hour and a quiet room and I can sort out all of my problems—or at least understand them. So, call me what you will, but as I sat down to write this blog post, I couldn’t help but reflect on my past year as a writer. Blame it on Thanksgiving, but I’ve made some big revelations this year, stumbled onto some major truths, and I’m thankful for them, as challenging as they have been.

Truth: Writing a novel is hard. Really, really hard. I always knew this, of course. I’ve heard it a thousand times. But this year, the words became true. Writing a novel, especially your first novel, is isolating. It’s masochistic. It’s vulnerable. And it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Maybe you’re not like me; maybe your story rushed from your mind and fingertips like an avalanche. I hope this true. But maybe you are like me. And just maybe, translating your story, your characters, and your world onto a keyboard takes more physical energy and comes with more self-doubt than you ever dreamed it would.

Yesterday evening, I grabbed coffee with a friend, and I spent a majority of the conversation rambling on about how difficult writing has been for me. She poised her lips and asked, “Then why do it?” It’s a fair question. Without hesitation I responded, “I have to.” She misunderstood and asked if it was because I needed to finish what I started, out of a sense of duty. I shook my head. “No, I have to write it. I have to write this story. It’s in me. And I have to write it.”

Because here’s another truth: The thought of abandoning my story makes me feel physically ill. My stomach clenches like I’m going through turbulence. As much as writing makes me want to cry, or pull my hair out, or simply give up because the colossal effort of writing a complex, compelling, and inspiriting story makes Atlas’s task of holding up the world look like recess, I love it. I love writing. I love my story. I laugh at the stupid things my characters say, I smile just thinking about their happy endings even though I haven’t written them yet, and I dance when a left-field epiphany gets them out of a metaphorical pit. I’m creating something I find beautiful, something made of equal parts love and hate.

And it’s not just this novel. I’ve got others buried in this brain, other characters that don’t even have names yet, but I know they have a story to tell. And I must be the one to tell it.

So here’s my final truth, my final reflection, my final confession: I have no idea what I’m doing. Yet I know I can’t let that stop me. I must forge through this night and then the next one, blindly, but forward nonetheless. A writer I admire once used this metaphor: Writing a novel is like building a skyscraper. First there’s an idea, then blueprints, a foundation, a skeletal structure, floor upon floor, walls and ceilings, electricity and plumbing and doorways and windows, then paint, carpet, chandeliers, and pictures hung in wooden frames. And the effort to build this marvel takes months or years, it takes cranes and saws and all other manor of tools and supplies I don’t and can’t comprehend. It doesn’t suddenly just exist, ready and beaming in the morning light. It grows. Ugly at times, but it grows. And I have to believe that, eventually, it will stand on its own. A creation. A story. Whole. True. And mine.