Why going backward can be the best way forward
Writing the first draft of a novel can be exhilarating. Characters are fleshed out, literally: a mole here, a dimple there, dirty fingernails, nice teeth, a purse of flesh under the chin, toothpick legs sticking out of a potato body. They are given a favorite song to hum, a skipping gait, the tendency to nervously clear the throat before speaking.
The scene is set, detail by detail. A forest of towering pine trees, boughs swathed in verdant needles, rough bark clad in velvety moss, the dank shadowy undergrowth fissured with golden striations of sunlight. A small bayside town of brightly painted wooden shacks huddled along meandering streets first mapped by tribal shepherds leading their flocks to lush pastures high up the surrounding escarpment. A dark, smoke-musty bar with graffiti-gouged tables and floors that stick to the sole of your shoes.
Characters meet scene and, like lab animals, are made to interact.
Some days, the words gush. Quitting time comes and goes, but you don’t want to stop. The tide is high, and you fear the ebb. Finally, duty calls, and you click "save" for the last time, brain vibrating like a struck gong, senses reawakening to the cold, hard facts of daily reality. Like a jetlagged traveler, it takes some time to recover from the journey back.
But it can also be a lonely and frightening journey conjuring words and plot from nothing more substantial than your own brain. I like to compare it to paddling solo across an ocean with only the distant stars for navigation. It’s easy to get lost, discouraged, and scared. Failure is lurking in the turbid waters, its shadow circling like a hungry shark. Dark storm clouds of despair threaten to swamp your fragile vessel, sweeping across the sun-struck water to leave you blinded, drenched, chilled, wet hands slipping off the oars. The faraway constellations guiding you suddenly disappear in a smothering fog, and you don’t know which way to row. You realize with horror that you’re paddling in circles.
Today was such a day, every word both an excruciating birthing and a major triumph, my eyes constantly flickering to the word-count ticker at the bottom of the computer screen.
On days like these, I tell myself to just put one word in front of another. But my fingers are clumsy and fumble. I pick a word. It’s not the right word. I choose another. It fails, as well.
Easily distracted, I stare out the window. Blue jays, robins, and chickadees bob up and down the limbs of the gnarled maple in our neighbor’s yard. A red-bellied woodpecker hunts for insects among the burled knots of the tree. A squirrel with a thin, bald rat’s tail scampers up the trunk. Another one with a short bunny tail follows.
Why are there so many squirrels in my neighborhood with deformed tails? Should I be worried about it?
The Internet beckons. My sister-in-law sends me a link to the DC eagle cam. I am instantly addicted, toggling over every few minutes. I check the various news sites frequently, just in case anything major has happened in the last 15 minutes. I read the daily Independent book review. A chatty email arrives; I devour it, instantly write back, review my in-box for any forgotten messages that await a reply. I post a photo of the first blossom on our cherry tree on Facebook, and then get trapped in the sticky web of other people’s lives. I indulge in a bit of Samantha Bee on YouTube.
My dog gives me the stink-eye as, looking for some sympathy, I interrupt his four-hour nap. I know that it’s too early for the mail to have been delivered, but I check the mailbox anyway. I get myself a snack, make another cup of tea, water the plants, loop back to harassing the dog some more.
The hour arrives when I can decently give up all pretense at work and go for my daily swim. But I am reluctant to stop, because I have so little to show for the day. Surely, surely, I can dry-heave up a few more sentences. Finally, loathing myself, I leave my desk.
A bad day of writing can be a good day at the pool. I thrash out my frustration in the water. Even if I’m useless at writing, I’m good at swimming.
For the millionth time, I ponder giving up writing for a life where I need never leave my comfort zone, free of doubt and a nagging sense of inadequacy to the task I’ve set myself. Ah, yes, I think. Surrendering is the answer, and I’m a deluded idiot for having resisted it for so long. Resolved to quit writing, I start to think about other things.
Then, in a flash, it comes to me. That minor character, the one I can clearly picture when I close my eyes and whose past I’ve intricately detailed in my notes, needs to be brought closer to the spotlight. She figures prominently in the ending, and yet I’ve burrowed too deeply into the plot without fully introducing her. I see what I have to do: go backward to go forward.
Sometimes, when you think you’re circling the drain, you’re really just letting your thoughts sort themselves out.
Suddenly, I can’t wait for tomorrow.