Sunday 14 March 2010

Please Miss, what shall I write? - Anne Rooney

I remember other kids asking that question when we were set free composition exercises at school. I never had to ask - I always had something to write about. But now the tables are, if not turned, at least tilted and I am asking it - most immediately about this blog post, then about Ian McEwan's Solar (reviewed to death before it's even been published) and, like a 10-year-old, about my next story. Creativity is at a low ebb. It has been winter for too long, too many terrible things have happened, and all my creative energy has gone into putting pieces back together. But I can't go for too long without writing something imaginative, and now I'm restless.

Writers are used to the perennial question asked by non-writers, 'where do you get your ideas from?' Many of us find the question deeply irritating, or intrusive, or just stupid. Ideas are in the ether, all around. It's a bit like quinine - some people can taste the quinine in tonic water and it makes the stuff unbearably bitter. Others can't taste it at all. Some of us are bombarded with the ideas that are lurking everywhere; others seem to walk oblivious through the blizzard without seeing any of them. I can't taste quinine, but find the world crawling with ideas. They seep out of every surface and pool on the floor. Usually, there are far more than can be dealt with. But not now. There is a bit of an idea-drought around here. This is not the same as writer's block - brillliantly discussed here by Lucy Coats and debated by several other SASsies and the WB-denier Susan Hill. If I had something to write about, I could write, at least badly - and bad writing can be improved later. But I can't quite settle on an idea I care enough about. Writing is often an effort, but there must be excitement to fire the effort. It's like an engine that can't start without a spark.

I do have a bit of an idea now, but it hasn't come about in the usual way. Usually, I'll be walking or talking or reading and a phrase or an image will spark something. From this tiny germ - often words, sometimes a picture - a story will start to unfurl. I won't necessarily know where it's going when I start writing, but it will hold enough promise for me to have faith in it. This time it's different. This idea is cobbled together from tracks, footprints left in the mud. Shadows of events, words, images rather than the real thing, a hint of a pattern emerging from the mess.

When I was a small child, I used to play with mercury. I know, that's dangerous. I remember chasing tiny blobs of mercury around on the carpet (mercury is good on a carpet - it doesn't stick to the fibres, but rolls over them). I would break my mercury pool into lots of tiny globules and then coax them around, herding them like sheep, until finally I'd group them all back together into a single pool, my mercury flock reunited. It's like that, this time. The story is bits and pieces. They need herding together, but my muse won't play the demeaning role of sheepdog. I can push the mercury blobs around, but they don't stick together. Maybe a story can't be made this way. Maybe the bits will never stick. It's not my way of writing - which is no reason to reject it, but it means I don't know how to do it. I don't want to have to learn how to write all over again, like the victim of an emotional stroke marshalling different parts of the brain to do once-familiar tasks. Do any of you write this way? How do I do it? Do I have to start writing a plan? Help!


Pen said...

What you have described is not the way I write now, but I used to write something like this. I'd have a scene, a snippet of a conversation, something small which seemed to go nowhere, but it was enough to intrigue me.

What should you do?

I suggest to take this little ... whatever it is ... and start writing about it.
Start painting with words the scene you see, the people, the smells, that tastes, or just the dialogue if that's all you have, and see what happens. Usually a story will begin to unfurl.

It can't hurt to try.

Good luck and happy writing! :)

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Pen - I wasn't clear. That's how I used to write, from an odd but clear snippet. Now I have a collection of vague feelings, shadows of images. It feels more as though I have to have the bigger picture fixed and then home in on the details - but I've never done that!

Rosalind Adam said...

Your blog title reminded me of a new member of my creative writing group. She recently apologised because she thought that what she had written was wrong, it not being exactly on the topic we'd been discussing. I soon reassured her. Creative writing flows in the way it has to flow and nothing is wrong.

Your dilemma is similar to the one I've been discussing in my own blog this week. You have used the analogy of mercury (I too remember playing with it on a school work bench. Horrors!) I have used the analogy of trying to close your fingers around an elusive dream or reaching out to a rainbow. Maybe your ideas have not yet matured enough to be herded together. Maybe, to mix a metaphor, they need time to ferment.

Good luck with your reluctant muse and I'll keep battling with my elusive 'just out of fingertip reach' story line... and long may ideas seep out of every surface.

Bill Kirton said...

You've obviously identified a fairly common experience, Anne. Before I read the comments of the others I was also thinking 'that's just what's been happening to me lately'. Maybe it's something to do with fluoride in the water. My not yet WIP has been bubbling annoyingly without a focus. I've done some research, started putting threads together, blogged about it, but the central raison d'ĂȘtre hasn't been there. Then suddenly, a couple of days ago - there it was. It made sense and drew all the other stuff together. But that just uncovers the next problem - I now have to write it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can't offer any help, but I can sympathize. I'm going through the exact same thing right now. I finished my current novel and am moving on to the next. I keep throwing words at the screen and nothing sticks.

I actually have a good idea, one that should work, but I can't seem to get into it to make it happen so I'm thinking it's the wrong one. As far as anything else goes though, I have nothing.

So, I completely feel your pain!

Andrew Strong said...

I'm never short of ideas, only time. And I think there's a connection. If I have only an hour to write, and most days I do, I make sure I make use of it. Even if I write rubbish. Too much freedom, whether it's with time to write, or choice of subject matter, isn't always such a good thing.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I wonder if this isn't exactly what your story is about... a sense of vagueness and shadows, Anne? Perhaps how its emerging is the way it has to be written. You talk about footprints in the mud. That in itself is a very powerful symbol suggesting something that has gone before but also a path ahead. Is it a diary perhaps where you can dip back and forth? Maybe the reader is not sure who the diarist is.
Of course all this is rubbish advice to someone so adept as you. I think what I'm trying to say is give yourself some grace. Meander at will. This is how organic stories go and sometimes they surprise us. Keep the vagueness... its part of your story.

Linda Strachan said...

I had a similar problem with my latest book (coming out in June). I had no idea what I was doing, not that I usually plan a lot but I normally know something about the character(s) at the beginning and often what will happen at the end.
I knew I had to write something so I just sat down and wrote anything that came into my head, for three solid weeks.

I hardly even looked back at any of it and several times I almost gave up and threw it all away. But amazingly it all seemed to fall into place in the end. After the three weeks were over I left it for a while then came back and finished it and re-wrote bits but the story was there by then.

It was weird but perhaps it might work for you, too?

Dead Boy Talking - June 2010- Strident Publishing

Gillian Philip said...

Linda, that sounds exactly like my experience with my latest, The Opposite of Amber. It seemed to be a bunch of unconnected ramblings at one point, but at the lowest point of despair it suddenly clicked, and turned into a real story. It's such a horrible feeling, but it's always nice to know you're not alone. Don't panic, Anne, it'll come together, you know it will! The story's just playing hard to get. In the end it'll be True Lurve.

michelle lovric said...

You have so many talents, not sure if drawing is one of them? Suspect it is. Here is something that I do, often with translations, and sometimes with English text that is palely loitering on the screen without any birds singing: try closing the computer and getting some white paper without lines. And DRAW images of what you are thinking about. Then you can reinterpret the pictures back into words. It is worth a try. Better still, take the white paper out into the garden. It can work, can refocus, can force your idea to swim through another medium and develop some muscles that way. What a seething pot of mixed metaphors! Sorry! I hope so much your idea finds its way through.

Katherine Roberts said...

You might try Jenny Alexander's creative collage exercise...

Spend five minutes ripping images and headlines that appeal to you out of a stack of magazines (time yourself, because the idea is to do it quick enough to bypass your conscious mind). Then spend twenty minutes arranging and sticking them into a collage. I usually meditate for a minute on the question I want the collage to answer just before I start ripping.

This might give you some clue how the bits fit together... not sure if this ssort of thing works for you, but I often find it helpful at the start of a project when I need to access my reclusive muse!

Linda Strachan said...

Oh yes,Ktherine, I remember doing that and thought it wasn't going to work but weirdly it does. Go on, try it!

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, everyone, for all your helpful suggestions. I think I might have found a central thread, or at least another piece of the jigsaw. But I may still try a bit of drawing (I'm not very good at it, Michelle!) or collage. I feel more comfortable with collage, but we only have SB's fashion mags and New Scientist to tear up so it might produce an odd story!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

yes... but be careful of the mags you choose to tear up... I found myself with a Psychiatry magazine and ended up with a very bizarre collage that had me howling about family relationships when I tried to tell the rest of the group about it! But maybe the magazines choose you and not the other way around... and it was quite cathartic!!!