The case of the wandering ego

You’ve decided to write your first book. You sit down in front of a computer. You have your cup of coffee or tea in hand. Maybe you’re sitting in your favorite chair or that perfect nook you found at your local library or coffee shop.

I’m sure in the back of your mind you have an idea. A plan. Perhaps a semblance of the story you want to tell. It’s taking shape, becoming clearer, even if it’s a little abstract.

You take a deep breath, put your hands on the keyboard… and nothing happens.

You know the story (at least the important points), you know your characters (hopefully), but for some reason, everything escapes you. It all becomes elusive. You had your vision, your goal, but now it’s wandering.

For me, it was a case of a wandering ego.

I knew my story and my characters. I knew the important points and I had a plan! But I sat for a week in front of my computer and nothing of substance came out. I tried visualizing it, massaging it, tempting it, forcing it… but all I got was a three page opener that didn’t do a thing for me. It was anemic. The characters, the context, the location, the scenery—they were all pale, like one-dimensional cutouts. I would sit and stare at the blinking cursor forever, completely annoyed.

There was too much noise in my head. Like any other writer, there were other stories and characters I had written about; so that when I sat down to write, they were the ones that were literally bleeding onto the page. I kept trying to force my muse in another direction—the one I had chosen. My plan had created a box, a road map for a storyline that I refused to deviate from.

My ego got in the way.

I forgot I was the vessel. The story existed somewhere out there in the aether, and as the writer I was just the tool, the instrument that’s supposed to give it life. Sounds cliché, doesn’t it? But it’s true. You hear about it frequently in art (Michelangelo, for example, believed that as a sculptor he merely revealed a figure that already lived, hidden, within the stone) but it applies to all forms of it, even writing.

I was so obsessed with my vision, that I couldn’t see past it. I had married myself to my plan, and I’d be damned if I was going to write something different. So I didn’t write anything at all. I deleted the three pages that had taken me days to write, and nothing else came out.

After days of this kind of self-torture, I confided in a close friend. Her response? It was simple—“Just write about what you love.”

Translation? Be the ball. “Stop thinking…let things happen…and be…the ball.”

Now, I love Caddyshack as much as the next person, but I’m not that enlightened yet. I’m the kind of person who fidgets when I try to meditate. I can’t empty my mind. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. How in the heck was I supposed to be the ball? Plus, anyone who knows me knows that what I love could be one of a million different things; I’ve been known to be a little obsessive about my interests, and of those there are many. How on earth was I supposed to hone in on the one?

Turns out my friend was right.

After being stubborn and refusing to give in for several days after that, one day I just let go of the plan. I decided to… just write. Stream of consciousness. Whatever decided to come out.

I wrote three paragraphs, three small paragraphs that turned out to be the catalyst for my entire book (never mind they ended up being cut from the final draft).

All three were about him, a character I’d written about for years. I’d worn his skin and explored his world a thousand times—but I’d never considered writing a book around him, not once, because the whole time I’d been “planning” to write about something else. Turns out, of all my characters, I loved channeling him the most.

You hear all the time from writers that their characters have a mind of their own, but you don’t really appreciate the depth of what they’re saying until you experience it yourself; until one of them screams and yells so loud in your head that you can’t ignore it. In my case, he screamed so loud it changed my entire plan.

How much, you ask? The only thing that stayed the same was the genre.

Characters or storyline? The chicken or the egg? Obviously they’re parts of a whole, but for me it was a singular character, and one who isn’t even the protagonist. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.

Stories can’t exist without characters, but the opposite isn’t true. Characters exist independently of a storyline. They are born and grow in your mind, able to live an entire existence without ever making it onto the page.

Have a plan, but always be open to changing it. You would be surprised where it could lead in the end.

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