When you’re having a good day writing it can be a very Zen thing…
Actually, hang on, before we go any further I should point out that I don’t really know what Zen is. I think it’s possible I’ve got a very childish idea about how it’s meant to work. I’m imagining something to do with unfocusing your mind. In same way you’d unfocus your eyes to see the sailboat in a magic eye picture. Maybe we should call I’m thinking of zen-ish. As is ‘Anyone for Zen-ish?’.
Think I just came up with a name for my first self-help book there. Or maybe my second podcast. Anyway, it feels far more appropriate and a lot less like I’m violating the personal space of people’s chosen belief systems.
Sorry, I’m getting distracted.
What I’m trying to say is that a really productive writing session hinges on a particularly mercurial lynch pin. It depends on finding that certain kind of flow that comes from precisely not focusing on anything in particular. Instead, you allow yourself to be swept up in your own story. You’re trying to reach a moment where it’s no longer clear who’s steering: you or the story.
When that happens, the results can feel pretty fantastical. The story moves far easier. The characters step forward and begin to find their own voices. Sometimes you even stumble across something in the story that you knew nothing about. It’s an experience that takes you out of yourself. Or, probably closer to the truth, it’s an experience that happens when you have successfully managed to take yourself out of the equation. You’ve left your own doubts and concerns at the door and become a part of the evolution of your story. You’re channelling it. Sometimes I think of it like being the earthing element. You’re carrying the story from the nebulous storms overhead and down to its destination, without causing too many fires or shocks on the way.
If you’ve ever watched anyone play the organ (behave) you’ll know that it’s not just a keyboard. The organ (stop it) surrounds them. There’s a sea of pedals under their feet. Banks of valves to either side of them. Once they start playing, it’s hard to tell if they’re the musician or part of the instrument. They’re almost dancing as they become the beating heart of the organ. Every arm and leg is working to drive the soaring music up and out the pipes. Writing can feel like that, when the story and the storyteller are in sync.
All of which means you want to reach that feeling every time. The problem being, of course, you’re not allowed. There’s no keyboard shortcut that gets you straight to ‘The Zen-ish Zone’. You just have to trust it will happen. You have to hope it’ll come naturally. However, on some days, the universe just seems to keep the magic to itself and all you end up doing is writing yourself ragged.
I’ve found recently that certain words or phrases which can totally kill the mood, so to speak. They pull me away from whatever I’m writing and leave me feeling cheap, stranded and distrusting my work. The usual suspects can include certain phrases or words that I know I use too often. Character or place names that just feel fake. The very worst for me at the moment, though, has to be the word suddenly. I am beginning to loathe the word suddenly. It feels so unwieldy, so unnecessary, so lacking in grace. It’s a weak joint. A blatant attempt to change gears. It’s like giving the reader a stage direction. Prepare for the unexpected in eight letters times. Every time I put it on the page the word seems to jump up and down, shouting ‘Hack! Hack!’.
I’m not sure when it started. I used to be fine with it. Now I can’t stand it. It makes me question what I’m doing. It leaves me floundering. Maybe it’s the change in pace it demands. Maybe it feels like too much of a desperate sign post. Less of a word and more a shift in mood music. The swift appearance of ominous strings. It’s tantamount to that old radio drama music. Dan Dan Dah!
I suppose this is really coming from how much I’ve been going over and over drafts of stories when I’ve been struggling recently. I started looking for problems. I became acutely aware of anything trick or twist I’d been using. At the same I also began to understand how hard it is to get people to read things.
Once again, that started with the nagging doubts social media can raise in me. Twitter felt like a great way to advertise my stories, until I realised everyone else on there was doing the same thing and it seemed to be about the picture than the story it was selling. I thought Facebook would be different, but now that site is giving me advice on how to grab people’s attention which is to keep your post short and sweet and use colourful pictures. Even blogs are apparently meant to be keep it little more than postcards. It all feels a little patronising to me. Yes, okay, there are a lot of distractions in the world now but that doesn’t mean all of us should be trimming our work down just to make it into sound bites. That’s when you’re basically just becoming a content provider.
There’s an incredibly pretentious part of me that keeps looking at books like 253 by Geoff Ryman, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst or The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson. Books that play with form. Books that challenge their readers to set aside their expectations for how a story should be told to them. I’m worried sometimes that writing is becoming a little too predictable as an artform. A little too easy to be ignored or left behind. It’s as if all the old tricks and traits (and maybe even some of the most basic rules) are causing books to lose out to some fantastic TV and movie storytelling. Never mind podcasts and some of the mind bending things that have been done in the name of viral marketing.
Only I don’t know how to write that yet. Besides which, for all the pretension, I didn’t need anything quite so disassembled or hypertext adjacent to get me reading. Plus, it was exactly this sort of posturing that drove me to totally ruin my last idea for a novel.
Actually, you know what, I’ve just realised I’m doing here. I set out to talk about the pitfalls of the word suddenly, but I’ve just given you a brief roadmap through how easy it is for me to get distracted from simply just writing. These are exactly the sort of imaginary problems that throw me out of a good morning’s writing and leave me wondering what the hell I’m doing. I worry about certain words or phrases feeling cheap. I worry about story not flowing. I worry that my story will get left behind or ignored. They’re all just crutches for my paranoia to hobble around on and I’d love to think spelling them out like this might hold them at bay from now on. In the same that naming a demon is supposed to put it under your control, allow you to exorcise it. Only I don’t think I’m that lucky.
The next time I trip over any of these hurdles I think the key is not to fight the fall. Instead, maybe it’s better to hit the ground and then pick myself up. Dust myself off. Maybe go and make a drink. Take a breath. Forget all the outside pressures and my own baggage and just remember why I’m writing in the first place. It’s not about pleasing other people. It’s not to making sure everyone thinks I’m clever or paying for the roof over my head. No, first and foremost, writing is about storytelling. It’s about the journey of telling it. It’s about playing with the words and plot and the characters. That really should be all that matters. I just hope I can remember that the next time I write suddenly and feel like that impulse to start picking apart my story.