As a kid, I think I was a very literal reader, or – perhaps – I had a literal, somewhat inflexible brain. I couldn’t understand a nugget of wisdom like ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ for instance, because the syntax seemed to make no sense to me; it took me years, even after the phrase was explained to me, to really get a grip on what it meant, as opposed to what it was saying. My mother had a fridge magnet which used to baffle me as a little girl – the saying on it was: ‘Housework is something I do that no-one else notices unless I don’t do it.’
I can’t tell you how many hours’ thought that phrase took up in my six-year-old brain. Every time I thought I had it nailed down, the words would just slither out of my hands again, sticking out their tongues and waggling their ears at me, and run off to cause havoc somewhere else.
To be entirely fair to my infant intelligence, the phrase could have been more clearly put, but still. I look at it now, and I’m embarrassed that it took me so much effort to wrap my head around it. I just wasn’t able to understand how housework could be something you did (because it clearly states at the beginning that ‘housework is something I do’, which I took as a definite statement, i.e. the housework is being done), while simultaneously not doing it.
Now my explanation of my thought process is starting to confuse me. Perhaps we’d better just leave it at that!
Luckily, as I’ve grown, so have my abilities to understand figurative and indirect language, and my facility with visual imagery and puns, and that sort of thing. I’m glad, at this stage of my life, to have had those moments of confusion surrounding certain phrases and sayings, though – it meant I thought deeply about words and what they meant, and how they fit together. It probably did a lot to spark off my interest in creating words instead of just reading them. I didn’t always ask for help with these verbal conundrums, you see – I just took them into myself and pondered them, sometimes for years, until I’d cracked them.
However, there are times, even now, when I feel like my thought processes around language and words are still a bit too inflexible. If I read something and straight away my brain lands on one particular meaning based on the words I’ve seen (even if – or especially if – it’s wrong), I find it hard to over-write it and replace it with the correct meaning. Occasionally, the same thing can happen with my thought processes – I get caught into one way of thinking, and then I can’t see my way clear to get out of it.
This isn’t to say I’m some sort of dyed-in-the-wool type who can’t accept that a way of thinking is wrong, or flawed, or whatever. I’m perfectly willing and able to change my mind on things, to learn new stuff and amend my opinion on a whole range of issues. When it comes to writing, though, I think I find it hard to think flexibly. I put my plot down on paper, and it leaves a heavy impression. Even when I take it back up again to put it down somewhere else, that heavy impression remains. I find it difficult to stop my thoughts following the same old channels, and leaving me stuck in the same old corners as before.
This is a problem.
Yesterday, I found myself getting tied up in a terrible muddle with ‘Tider’. The book is too long, for a start, and I’m very aware of editing it down to a more realistic word count, and – as I said yesterday – there were several scenes which I felt were too wordy, and not necessary, and too slow-moving. I hacked away more than 6,000 words, removing scenes which spoon-feed our protagonist some of the things she needs to know in order to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding her family – but then I found myself marooned on the island of ‘What Now?’
Of course there’s a way around this. Of course there’s a new plotline that will satisfactorily bring my characters from Point A to Point Z and everywhere in between in an elegant, clever and interesting way – but the harder I tried to find it, the bigger grew my muddle. I found myself sinking my head into my hands at several junctures yesterday, lamenting the fact that I just couldn’t see around my old plotlines – the trails they’d left through ‘Tider’ were so deep, and so clear, that trying to bypass them or reroute them or dig them up altogether was just beyond my power.
So I turned off my computer at 6 pm yesterday, as I normally do. I went about my other duties, as I normally do. At the end of a ‘normal’ writing day, however, my brain is usually fizzing and firing off ideas and suggestions and images long after I leave my work behind, but last evening I made a huge effort to ignore it and give myself a little bit of space to decompress. It’s very hard for me not to panic when I feel an idea that once worked well no longer fits ‘the brief’ and needs to be changed; I feel like I’m trying to force a river to alter its course, and cut a new path through the earth. The harder I try to make myself to think in a different way or to read what I’ve written in a more flexible way, the less likely I am to be successful.
So, I went against my urge to keep hacking away at the problem, and I took an evening off. I watched some TV – I didn’t even read, which is unusual for me. I allowed myself to get lost down a totally different track, and I realised how tired I was. My brain was asleep long before my body was, I think.
And you know what? I woke up this morning with the tiniest little seedling of a new approach growing in my mind. It’s not a huge change; it’s so tiny, it’ll probably take less than a sentence to achieve. I hope that it will make a huge difference to today’s writing, though.
I’m also fully convinced that I never would have seen it unless I’d given myself permission to step back. Sometimes, trashy TV really is the answer to all of life’s problems.
Happy Friday – I hope a happy weekend is unfolding for you all.