It’s amazing, isn’t it, how often a breakthrough (in life, in work, in whatever) is preceded by a breakdown – or, at least, what feels like one.
Last week was not a good week for me in terms of writing. I worked through a panic, during which I felt the story falling apart. I had taken a misstep somewhere, and I wasn’t sure where, or how to fix it. That bad decision (both the misstep, and the idea that if I just kept on ploughing through it was bound to all come together in the end) meant that everything started to unravel, which deepened the panic, which lessened my ability to focus on what I was doing, which meant – of course – that it all got worse, and fast. Last week, I went through various stages of telling myself ‘You can’t do this writing thing’, followed by ‘How could you possibly think you had any hope of making a career of this?’, which segued neatly into my assertion that I was nothing but a silly twit who’d never had a good idea in her life.
So. Not a lot of fun. Lots of befrazzlement and staring into space and interior darkness, but I think that’s sort of expected, when you write.
Then, the weekend came, and my very clever husband decided to distract me by bringing me places where I couldn’t think about the book. We went to hear a concert band playing, and we visited a craft fair, and we relaxed. We both needed it.
And on Saturday night – very very late – just as we were about to drift off to sleep, I suddenly started getting ideas. Breakthrough ideas. ‘Bring-it-back-to-its-last-known-good-setting-and-work-from-there’ ideas. I lay, listening to my husband’s quiet breathing, knowing he wasn’t quite asleep but almost, and thought. I made a plan for a new plot and went through it a few times, over and back, examining it from all angles like it was a diamond. It seemed to work; certainly, I was excited at the thought of putting it down on paper. It was dynamic, and fresh, and it connected the characters’ arcs in just the way I’d been looking for, and it was nicely sleight-of-hand in terms of diverting the reader’s attention. It was, in short, a possible solution to the knot that I’d managed to tangle myself up in.
Eventually, however, I dragged myself out of my head and realised I was lying in a quiet, darkened bedroom, where the slightest move would disturb my (by now) almost certainly sleeping husband. But I also realised that I couldn’t trust myself to remember the details of this new plot. I couldn’t face the idea of waking the following morning grasping at the threads of it, watching as it dissipated before my eyes like smoke from an extinguished candle. That has happened to me too often in the past. It’s not too bad when it’s an idea for a short story or just a general ‘idea’, to be used somewhere at some stage, but something like this? I had to hold onto it at all costs, and I knew it.
So. I think we can all guess what course of action I took. Here’s an apologetic dog, just to soften you up for what’s coming next.
I grabbed my phone and started to tap a note into it, whispering ‘sorry!’ to my blinking, confused husband. The light from the screen was bright in the gloom, and it dragged him up out of whatever dream he’d just been relaxing into. Luckily for me, he took it well, and settled back down again quite quickly.
My note, of course, was riddled with errors; between the fact that I was gazing at the screen out of one eye (due to the contrast between its glow and the darkness all around), the fact that I was tired and – most importantly – the fact that I was in a hurry to get this out of my head before I forgot it, I think about five percent of the words were spelled correctly. It’s a testament to my desperation that I didn’t linger over my work to make any corrections, and when I read it over the following morning I laughed at how some of my sentences had turned out. Luckily they all made sense, and I’ve even kept the spelling mistakes to remind myself how important it is to listen to the little voice in your head that suggests a way out of whatever issue you feel you’re irretrievably lost in, no matter what time of day or night it starts to speak to you.
Naturally enough, the following morning my beleaguered husband was glad I’d had this breakthrough and even gladder that I’d managed to write it down, but he did make a humble suggestion: why don’t you get a pen and paper and leave them by the bed, instead of using your phone? Perhaps I’d better listen to him. He did have the great idea to go away from all work at the weekend, after all; without that, I’d still be bunched, spiralling further into my panic-maelstrom.
It is a shame that we need to reach our lowest point before we can start coming up again, but it’s important to always have hope that this upward progression is possible, and that it will happen. No plot problem is ever insurmountable, whether we’re talking a plot you’re writing, or one you’re living. Take some time out. Breathe a bit. Go and see a concert band and watch some kids dancing, totally carefree. Hold the hand of someone you love.
The words will be there when you’re ready.