Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tapping the Well

New Writer's Weekly Question #3: Do you have times when you just can't get to your imagination, or your imaginary places? How do you cope with this issue? How do you manage your reality with your imaginative process?

Hmm. I like the way this one is worded. It implies that the well of imagination does not itself run dry, but we sometimes have trouble operating the bucket. That strikes me as about right. I suspect that weird stuff going on in our heads all the time, but for the most part we're unaware of it. The trick for the writer (or artist of any sort, perhaps) is to dredge up some of our buried weirdness, impose order on it and thus turn it into art.

For myself specifically, it's almost never a case of feeling that I've entirely run dry, even when I'm being remarkably unproductive. My failures of imagination are nearly always task-specific. Just half an hour ago, I was looking at a Joshua Wander story I got stuck on almost exactly two years ago. The passage above is on page 28 of the handwritten draft of that part of the story. As you can see, it ends in the middle of a sentence, mostly because I didn't know what exactly Rachel does next. I still don't.

When I get stuck on something like that, I generally abandon it for a bit, and hope the answer will come to me later. This never works, by the way. I do better if I write some other scene from the same work, or make myself work on the stuck scene anyway.

The same sort of thing happens with this blog sometimes. I am determined to post an entry every night (night being defined as any time before I go to bed, even if it's 7 AM), but I don't always have an idea for an entry. This is often a major reason why I don't go to bed at a reasonable hour. Take this entry, for example. I started it around 9:30 this evening, which is unusually early for me. But after the words, "I still don't," I wasn't sure where I was going with this essay. So I watched Doctor Who and edited Wikipedia, and now it's 1:40 AM and I've made it through two more paragraphs. As with Rachel in the mirror shop, I made no progress on it during the time I was off doing other things, but the hope is that my subconscious is working in the background, and I'll eventually be able to draw on that.

How do I get to it, though? These are the three things that sometimes work for me:
  1. Prime the pump. When I'm off reading or watching tv or writing something else, in theory I'm giving my subconscious new stuff to think about, raw material for new essays or storymaking. This can either be direct inspiration - watching Doctor Who and then writing about it, for example - or completely new, seemingly irrelevant stuff. That's at least as helpful as the other kind. There's a reason aspiring writers are advised to read widely. It gives the imagination something to work with, not just story elements but a sense of how they fit together, what works and what doesn't, and what might be applicable to the writer's own work.
  2. Sleep deprivation. No, I'm not kidding about this. When I'm really, seriously tired, all sorts of daft nonsense surfaces in my brain. Catch me at just the right level of tiredness, in the right mood and with no other immediate obligations, and I can pour a bunch of reasonably interesting words onto a virtual page fairly quickly. This can backfire, though. Aside from health concerns and a huge upswing in typos, the time comes when the brain stops cooperating, and there isn't much I can do but go to bed. That's what happened last night, incidentally. I got to a certain point in my little narrative with Ariel, and then my tired brain stranded me there without a closing line. Since Ariel is essentially a function of my imagination, she couldn't help me. So I gave the entry a totally lame ending, went to bed, and slept for 10 hours.
  3. Write it anyway. At some point I have to just start writing the thing, even if I don't know where it's going. I usually don't know where a story is going anyway, but I can get through it if I just keep writing - or resume writing. I think the problem with Rachel, aside from the fact that it's a mystery story and I've never plotted a mystery in my life, is that I had a neat idea that really, really won't work at that point in the story. I'll have to write something else, and hope I eventually write my way into a plot that works.
As for the underlying question behind the one posted above, I don't generally find real life stresses getting in the way of writing. Time constraints, yes. Distractions and obsessions, yes. But not stress at work, or family crises. If anything, writing is a welcome respite from Real Life. Isn't that what imagination is for?


P.S. The Writer's Weekly Question is open to writers, aspiring writers and non-writers alike. See "It's Creative, but Is It Art?" for details.

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