“Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way’, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world.” — John Gardner
On Thanksgiving Day, I was hit with a bad cold. I spent two days pretending the cold wasn’t actually there and that I could go on functioning as if I were well. By the third day, I had to admit that I really was sick — and this meant I had to let go of my need for that thing I fondly call “momentum.”
I like the feeling of momentum. I like the idea that I am moving forward. The trouble comes in when I start to believe I can truly control exactly how things move.
When I returned to working on my novel after being sick, I felt disconnected from what I really wanted to say, at a loss with the story. My characters seemed like they were doing silly things, just marking time, moving around the rooms of my pages for no purpose.
Yesterday, during a group writing sprint with other members of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle, I went to the page with the same feeling of stuckness and confusion about my story that I’ve had lately. “This is terrible!” a familiar voice inside me piped up. “You have to get over this! You need to make this story work!” (No pressure, or anything.)
When, as a coach, I work with a client who’s stuck, I often use metaphor to help them see their situation clearly. I asked for a helpful image to come to me, and the image that bubbled up in my mind was my cat, when we have a vet visit scheduled and he’s caught on to the fact that the cat carrier has entered the room. Once he gets under the bed, my mission is impossible: he knows he can hide there from me as long as he wants, because I can’t physically pick up the bed and get him out. And we’ve certainly had incidents where I’ve chased him around the house, and sometimes I end up standing the cat carrier on its end and stuffing him into it while he braces his back legs on its sides and writhes furiously. I hate this. And, of course, so does he.
There was this one time, though, when my cat snuck under the bed and I just didn’t have it in me to figure out a way to get him out and stuff him into the cat carrier. I set the carrier on the floor in the living room and sat down in a chair. I called the vet and told them we probably weren’t going to make it to our appointment.
The vet’s assistant was completely laidback about this. “Come on in if you catch him,” she said, laughing.
I sat quietly in my chair. Really, chasing my cat just didn’t seem worth it. He wasn’t ill; it was just a routine check-up since he’s getting into his senior years.
Within fifteen minutes, my cat emerged from beneath the bed and tentatively walked into the living room. He saw me sitting in the chair, looking quite harmless; he approached the cat carrier and sniffed at it. Then he began to investigate the carrier very thoroughly, with a kind of reverent curiosity. It was like he wanted to fully understand this instrument of his impending doom.
I realized that I was treating my story the way I treat my cat when I just want to get him to the damn vet. I stuff him into a box and endure his plaintive meows, feeling like a world-class jerk. Because I want to fix things. Because I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Because I’m driven by a kind of urgency.
Obviously, sometimes my cat needs to go to the vet and we do engage in this routine (though I’ve gotten quieter and better at doing sneak attacks, so neither of us struggle as much these days — usually).
But does this pattern work with my novel, with my characters?
I was stuck and overwhelmed because I was invested in the idea that my story needed to be “fixed,” that it contained a problem that needed to be solved. There are certainly plenty of books and advice out there that can tell me how to “fix my novel problem.” And some of them can be very helpful, at certain points in the process. But I realized yesterday that approaching my story in this top-down way, as if it was something I could fix from the outside by forcing it into a box of my choosing, was disconnecting me from anything the story had to show me, from letting it reveal itself.
When I sat back, relaxed, and made the choice to approach my story with that reverent curiosity my cat is so good at, I discovered a fascinating thing: I got really interested in my story again. I wasn’t trying to make it be, or do, anything; I was just interested in it. That all-important question, “What is it about?” welled up in me, and I realized I knew exactly what it was about. I also realized that this novel does not want to be as long as I’ve been thinking it should be. It just might want to be a novella. It knows what it is; and I’ve been so set on “fixing it” that I’ve lost touch with the thread that connects one scene to the next.
My story started to move again. I wrote beyond the 0ne-hour set time of the group sprint, I was so caught up in it. Hallelujah! I understand my story better. And why did I get into this writing in the first place, if not to better understand?
Can I approach my life, too, from this space of reverent curiosity? Can I step back, breathe for a moment, and give my life the space and kind attention it needs in order to be what it wants to be?
Image is “Wonder Cat” © Eden Daniel | Dreamstime.com