Part of being a constant writer is being an expert on getting around roadblocks. Roadblocks can come in any form. Sometimes it is lack of time. Sometimes it is lack of ideas. And sometimes it has everything to do with an inability to see where you are going next.
You, no doubt, know exactly what I am talking about. You are writing, your characters are talking through you, fingers are flying on the keyboard or pen across the page, and then suddenly it is gone. Everything. You were moving along in the story and now you cannot find your way.
This happens to me more frequently than I would like. I call them my desert highway moments. I am driving in my car of creativity with the sun high in the sky highlighting my every move. I can see far in the distance. Some mountains. Maybe a river. And then darkness descends. Unfortunately, it is not like in real life with the softening of light into twilight and the slow movement to darkness. Nope. Blackness. Complete. Silence from my characters. Silence from my brain. Everything stalled out as I contemplate the darkness.
Take a Mental Picture
In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird she talks about the idea of a story being like a Polaroid. “First you point at what has your attention and take the picture” she writes, and then you watch it develop. A piece here and a piece there. This is a powerful idea when thinking about how to tackle a project; the slow process of revealing as you go along in your writing. It is also a powerful idea when stuck because it suggests that you do not have to know where you are going to move forward.
Find Your Focus
What do I mean and how do I do it? Well, first, I turn on my headlights and focus on the piece of highway I am on. This might be re-reading the last thing I wrote. Or maybe even going back further in the story and reading several pages back. The idea is to go back to where I had sunlight, where I had a clear image. Then, like a Polaroid picture, slowly start filling in the details around that focus point.
For example. I am stuck writing about Jane Doe and John Deer. They just had a fight. The details of the fight are in the story. The location and scene is in the story. But, now I am stuck. I know the scene. I know the characters. I know what has created tension. I do not know what my characters are going to do next.
Instead of banging my head against the desk, I look around the scene, picking out randomness and expanding on those details. I do not know what the cat lying on the couch is thinking. I do not know where Jane Doe bought the lovely vase sitting on the table. Or why John Deer has facial hair instead of a clean face. I decide to write about facial hair.
Because these little snippets of writing do not matter to the actual story arc, I find that writing them out is fairly easy. Without the pressure, the writing comes easily and freely. And sometimes the best way to get through a roadblock is to just keep writing — developing my Polaroid. Those little detailed stories will likely never enter the main story. They are not aspects that drive the plot so are not needed. But, what I’ve done is shine my headlights on the scene, and slowly, inching forward in the darkness, expanded my knowledge of the surroundings thereby creating a space for my the actual story to move forward.
Sometimes it does not work. Sometimes I am lost in the darkness and no matter where I shine those headlights, it does not help the story along. Usually that is an indicator I have taken a wrong exit and my characters are on strike. The only solution then involves cutting scenes and rewriting. However, most of the time, a good 85 percent of the time, allowing the details to emerge helps get the world moving again. Creativity inches forward through the darkness, and eventually darkness turns to dawn, and dawn turns to daylight, and I am off once more.