Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating
Earlier today I posted to Twitter about how I’d been beating my head against a plot problem for about an hour, decided to give up and try again after dinner*, and then five minutes later my brain gave me a usable idea at last.
*The last week or two, I’ve been writing in the afternoon instead of my usual late-night stints. No, I don’t know why.
Naturally, several other writers have chimed in to confirm that yep, that’s often how it works. Of course the difficulty is, that isn’t always how it works; ignoring a problem is not a surefire solution for dealing with it. We’ve got abundant evidence from psychology that doing something else can be a good way to activate the problem-solving parts of your brain . . . but sometimes walking away is actually just you procrastinating. And half the time, you can’t really tell which one you’re doing until afterward.
For all that my job has many awesome aspects, this is not one of them. When I worked at a bookstore or on a Christmas tree form, it didn’t matter too much how enthused I felt on any given day. Sure, the job was more fun when I was into it for some reason, but fun or not, I could get it done. All it really took was the discipline of “you won’t get a paycheck if you don’t show up for work.”
Writing does also require discipline, of course — especially when you’re writing a novel, which is very much the “endurance sport” end of the job. I have long since lost count of how many days I didn’t particularly feel like I was in the zone, but once I sat down and made myself start, it actually went just fine. But the thing is, discipline will only get you so far. If you’re staring down the barrel of a scene like today’s, where I knew what it needed to accomplish but not how to make it do that, a scene I’d been kicking down the road for days already without ever clicking over into a concrete plan to make it go . . . you can’t just will the ideas to happen. Ideas are like cats. Some days you have to coax them out with treats and feather wands. Other days they start walking over your face at three a.m. demanding attention, and no, sleep is not more important than they are. And some days they just want none of it, no matter what inducements you offer.
After this long at the job, I have plenty of inducements. I know the value of things like associating particular music with a particular project, so that sometimes I can jump-start the creativity by putting the music on. I can sit down and logic my way through the structural elements surrounding the question marks, or I can get in the shower and hope for the magic inspiration juice that’s in the water to make things click. (Yesterday that resulted in a second session of writing, even though I’d already written enough for the day, because I had ideas and didn’t want to lose them.) But sometimes . . . sometimes the answers just aren’t there, and they just won’t come.
(I do want to note, by the way, that I’m talking specifically about being empty-handed on a bit of story, not being empty-handed more generally. I had a spate of that latter issue around this time last year, and it’s a different kind of scary. It’s the fear that not only will the solution to this plot question never come, but nothing at all will do so, ever again. That one is obviously much worse, and the solutions to it require you to dig deeper to figure out what the source of the difficulty is.)
I’ve been a writer for long enough that I don’t actually fear that I’ll be stuck forever on a plot problem. Sooner or later I’ll figure out a baseline functional answer, even if it’s not as good as I would like. (Sometimes that’s what revision is for.) But when you’ve got deadlines, you often need “sooner” rather than “later,” and the longer a stuck patch drags on, the more stressful it becomes.
And when you’re a full-time writer . . . in many ways this is a dream job, and I know it. But let me tell you, the part where you kind of need your creativity to perform on command in order to get your paycheck is not its best feature.