What are we writing about when we write fiction? On the surface, lots of things – hope, trauma, survival, joy, prejudice, love, ageing, life, death – but underneath it all, one thing: our truth. The truth that we have experienced and know, in the deepest recesses of our hearts. The truth that drives us to transmit it to other human beings, in fiction form, because we feel it is so important.
And it is important. But it can also cause big problems for us as writers.
Firstly, your conscious mind doesn’t have automatic access to the deepest, darkest recesses of your heart. There’s no management structure connecting the two. Your conscious mind cannot request your heart to deliver a couple of core truths by, say, 5pm. The connection is far murkier and less predictable than that, and the best we can do is to create the right conditions for it to emerge.
Secondly, core truths of your existence are often scary. They are lessons hard learned, linked to maybe some of the worst times in your life; sometimes, they are things your conscious mind would rather not face but your heart’s insisting on writing. That’s not to say your core truths are dark or depressing, or that fiction necessarily must be so; rather that human existence delivers its greatest joys and revelations as payoffs to periods of truly difficult work. If those revelations are the truth you want to transmit, you probably also need to write – or at least face – the difficult journey that led you to discover them.
Thirdly, your heart has no respect for the status quo. You may be writing a book about your truth that’s going to piss off some of the people around you.
So it’s no wonder that when we write something that means a lot to us, we can become frozen. We can get blocked in a number of ways that are nothing to do with plotting, or getting time to sit down and type. We can find we’re irrationally avoiding writing a certain scene, or unable to stop rewriting the beginning. Or maybe we need to map out character X but we can’t, because we know deep down it’s our problematic father and no-one’s allowed to criticise Dad…
One of the ways we sometimes respond to this is to recruit our conscious mind, with its flow charts and pocket full of pens, to try and Figure Out What Needs to Happen Next. Work harder! Attack the problem! Berate yourself a bit! Pull yourself together, FFS. This approach is a lot like trying to see a badger by crouching outside a badger sett at midnight, clapping, and shouting ‘COME ON, BADGERS!’
Sometimes, the very reason we’re in a bind with our writing is an over-recruitment of Logic Mind from the very start, maybe because we can’t trust that if we let go, the writing will come, and it will hang together; it doesn’t need us to have planned every step. There is a wonderful interview with Hilary Mantel in The Guardian, in which she says:
If you think of any worthwhile novel – its intersecting arcs, its intertwined themes and metaphors – no-one is clever enough to do it. When you have crammed your head with data, you have to take your hands off and see what shape the story forms. You must trust the process, and this can be difficult, because you have to quell anxiety; the task is to get out of your own way.
Or perhaps we’re frozen in the process of writing our truth because we’re overcome by negative, critical thoughts. Excuse me if I dive into psychotherapy here, but these kind of thoughts (‘this will never be good enough’, ‘who do you think you are?’, ‘pah – ridiculous’) may be messages we have swallowed whole from people who haven’t been that helpful to us. They may also be protective, aimed at defending the status quo; covering up that truth that you, or people around you, would like to stay under wraps, thank you. In this way, they can be a sign that you’re close to something very important.
Ah, what a mess we’ve got ourselves into. We have a truth to write, and we’re stuck – we can feel the shape of the story there, like an outline in the mist, but we can’t get at it and pin it down with Planning and Logic, and every time we try to it disappears, and also we’re beginning to suspect it was all a bad idea to start with and we’re not real writers and never could be.
What do we do?
There is an exercise in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, in which you simply take a piece of paper and write every fear and resentment you hold about yourself as a writer and your piece of work in particular (we have a similar version of this called The Moaning Method). This is a good place to start. It’s like throwing paint at invisible gremlins. Look at the messages on the page – do you recognise them? Do they sound right, or like total crap? Can you imagine a friend saying that to you, and how would you react if they did? Good. These thoughts probably won’t go away, but if you can spot them as interlopers before they convince you that they are you, they will become a lot less powerful.
Now, quieten down. Have faith that you can and will write your story. Prompt your writer’s mind – who is character X? – and then leave it alone. Your managing mind, the one that makes appointments and follows recipes and knows who has priority on roundabouts, does not do most of the creation work. It’s great at editing. Until then, keep it quiet. Allow yourself the freedom to free-write, if it helps. Collect images, objects, and songs that are relevant to your story, absorb them, then see what comes up. Walk. Draw and mind-map. Notice what connections appear.
As for whether your truth will offend anyone, the memoirist, novelist, and creative writing lecturer Anne Lamott writes: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Sorry, guys.
Perhaps this all sounds terribly woo, but the fact is that writing is half craft, half religion. It is designing and divining. You plan and you flow, and this is especially true in literary fiction. Writing is an act of immense vulnerability, and so when we’re frozen or stuck, often the best thing we can do is to kick out our negative voices and make a safe, quiet space for our weird artist hearts to shuffle out and sniff the night air.