At a Loss…

This week I’m rather at a loss for something to wander on about. It’s not because nothing is going on. Rather it’s because too many small things are going on. This leaves me distracted and disoriented which, in turn, makes it difficult to come up with something to write about.

Writers!  Don't Overburden Your Camel!

Writers! Don’t Overburden Your Camel!

I’ve certainly never been one of those writers who needs “a room of one’s own” to work. I’ve written in classrooms, in faculty meetings, in my office (back when I still taught), on airplanes, and at boring banquets. However, a certain amount of what might be called clear “head room” is a good thing to have, especially when, as with these wanderings, I need to come up with a new topic every week.

As anyone knows who has ever stared at the wall in desperation trying to figure out what to write for some college essay assignment, formulating the idea is half or even three-quarters of the battle. Back then, I’d spend a considerable amount of time rendering all my various thoughts down to a simple, one sentence thesis statement. After that, the rest of the paper would flow easily.

The same can be true with fiction writing. Getting the idea, whether for the overall project or for the particular section one is working on, is the biggest challenge. Once you slip into your characters’ heads, then the story toddles along quite nicely. Getting in there is the hard part.

By purest coincidence, over the last couple of months, I spoke with two professional writer friends who admitted that they were behind because they had assumed they could take on more work by scheduling themselves to write on Project One in the morning and Project Two in the afternoon. Both of these gentlemen – many times published, quite experienced authors – discovered that this was impossible. Once they were securely into one universe, their imaginations did not want to shift into the other.

Even worse, they discovered that the Morning/ Afternoon division of labor did not work, because even prolific writers seem to have only so much writing in them. When that writing has been expended, the Muse acts like a camel that has had the proverbial “last straw” loaded into her panniers. She folds her legs under herself, sits down, and refuses to get up until the unreasonable burden is removed.

So, how does a writer cope with this? One way is to do what I’m doing right now – start writing and see what comes out. In other of these wanderings, I believe I’ve mentioned that when I can’t seem to write anything, I make myself write at least twelve sentences.

This number evolved from a time when Roger Zelazny mentioned to me that he managed to sit down three or four times a day and write three to four sentences each time and that somehow this managed to turn into a considerable amount of finished prose – especially since when he had a really good day and wrote pages and pages, he didn’t take the next day off, but went right back to that sitting down three to four times a day and writing three to four sentences.

Anyhow, I was teaching college then and was lucky if I could find time to work on fiction once a day, so I multiplied three to four times by three to four sentences and arrived at twelve. It worked. I wrote four novels and quite a number of short stories while teaching college full time, by dedicating time to getting those twelve sentences on paper. (And I was teaching English, so I was also spending a huge amount of time reading and grading essays. This is not an inspirational activity, I assure you.)

Nonetheless, even with the best will and finest discipline in the universe, it seems that the Muse is only willing to let a writer come up with so much prose in a day. How much varies from writer to writer. However, I firmly believe that with a strict exercise regime, the Muse can be convinced to give a little bit more, just as a runner or swimmer can go from doing one or two laps to three or four, on and on, until a whole mile is reached.

But the training takes patience and quite a bit of understanding of one’s own temperament. This is one reason I only write one Wandering a week. Often on the day that I write it, my creative well is dry for the day. My Muse turns camel. Even if I remind her that we weren’t writing fiction, just a nice, bouncy little essay, she says, “Hah! You can’t fool me.” Sometimes she’s kinder and will accept a division between fiction and non-fiction.

Tempting the Muse works best for me if the fiction piece is already underway, particularly if I stopped in the middle of a particularly juicy scene, so that the Muse is eager to show off how we’re going to get our characters out of whatever predicament they’re in at that moment.
Sometimes even that isn’t enough.

So, my advice if you’re stuck? Write. Even when you don’t think you have anything to write about, write. You just might (as I have myself today) surprise yourself!

9 Responses to “At a Loss…”

  1. Peter Says:

    As a teacher myself, I must respectfully disagree with your statement that marking essays and assignments is not inspirational. I frequently find myself exceptionally inspired while marking. Generally to homicide. (Failing that, having a big stack of papers to mark is a wonderful motivator to do laundry, clean the apartment, catch up on the TV or movies I have recorded, make a dent in my “to read” directory, try that new restaurant downtown…)

    • janelindskold Says:

      You had me going there at first! People often ask me if I miss teaching. My honest answer is that something I miss the students — I still remember many with great fondness — but I don’t miss all the grading of essays.

      I did, however, write four novels and a great many short stories during that time, so I managed to come to some balance.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Agreed about grading. I complained so much one year that my mother commissioned a rubber stamp that showed a heap of manure with a shovel in one side and a flower poking out the other side and gave it to me for Christmas. There’s a certain type of essay (what Feynman called “not even wrong”) that just demands being graded with that type of rubber stamp. I still have it.

    I’m not always that vicious; I generally prefer to grade things into piles before assigning scores, because I noticed a tendency for grade creep, where my assessments change as I go through a class and get elated (or more often, depressed), as I read. The piles let me make sure that everyone gets roughly the same grade for the same quality of work (which generally go into Good! good enough. confused but not totally clueless, glimmers in a grayish lump of misery, and WTF).

    As for musings, I get whiplashed if I have to write in too radically different forms. For me, this varies between fiction, non-fiction, and responding to environmental reports. It’s hard to write fantasy, and then comment on an environmental impact statement. The latter may be fantasy (and there are a lot of those right now, for some reason), but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to pull my head out of some alternate world to read someone’s bureaucratic obfuscation and tell them to stop obfuscating. Unfortunately I don’t use my rubber stamp on those reports. Perhaps I should?

    • janelindskold Says:

      The rubber stamp I wanted was a big squawking “Awk!” — short for “Awkward.” Over the years, I became better at defining precisely what made a paragraph or sentence awkward, but something that “Awk” was the only comment I could make.

    • CBI Says:

      At the naval nuclear power school, the instructors would sometimes return submissions with similar codes — one actually had a stamp — indicating that the answer earned zero points.

      The two most common:
      – GCE (Gross Conceptual Error)
      – RTQ (Read The Question — sometimes “RTFQ” if one was really out to lunch).

      No worries about bruising students feelings there!

  3. cvaneseltine Says:

    The 12-sentence approach was interesting to me because my technique is effectively the opposite. Instead of assigning myself a set amount of work, I assign myself a block of time each day – typically an hour, before I go to work in the morning. I can sit there, or I can write, but I can’t do anything else.

    (Well, all right, I can also drink coffee. But that’s critical to the writing process when I’m just waking up.)

    I hadn’t considered your approach before, but perhaps I’ll try it the next time I’m powering through a first draft. Thanks for sharing this insight!

    • janelindskold Says:

      The reason I settled on short blocks of production rather than a set time was to relieve myself of being tense if I couldn’t come up with anything and the clock was running…

      You could combine the two approaches. Keep your set hour, then remind yourself that all you need to get done is at least twelve decent sentences. What I’ve found is that with the pressure to do a lot taken off,I often end up writing a lot more.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Once I asked you if you felt a writer had only so much writing in him/herself, and your reply was along the lines of the things you say in this wandering. I find that sometimes, especially as deadlines approach and the pressure builds and my mind is utterly empty, that it gets harder and harder to put the sentences down. But later, after the fuss has died down, if I re-read the pieces I cannot tell (or remember) which ones came easily and which ones were a huge struggle. They all just seem like “stuff I wrote”. I have no idea why this should be. Does it happen to you? How do you cope with it?


    • janelindskold Says:

      I don’t like deadline pressure, never did, not even in college when lots of people I knew made the excuse that “I write better under pressure” as an excuse to procrastinate.

      I love your comment that afterwards you can’t tell what came easily and what you struggled with. Roger Zelazny — who wrote a lot of wonderful fiction — said exactly the same thing. You’re in very good company!

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