I had all day to work on my new writing project yesterday, and I didn’t get to it until 8:30 p.m. I could see the story in my head. I saw the first scene very clearly. I heard the sound of the snow. I smelled the inside of the small house. I pictured the helicopter flying in to rescue the girl.
But I couldn’t hear the characters speak more than a few words. I couldn’t clearly see their faces. I couldn’t smell their hair. So I did all sorts of things that didn’t involve writing. I knew when I was on episode four of The Great British Baking Show I was deep in avoidance. So I watched two more episodes. Knowing you are avoiding writing and doing something about it are two very different things.
It’s not that hard to avoid writing for hours, days, years, your whole life. It's a heavy feeling, having not written when it's one of your dreams to have a book or a screenplay or a story or a poem. It feels like failure. Like a dark silence.
One of the exercises I do for my Write or Die class is to have people take five minutes to describe a photo of them that best shows who they are. It doesn’t matter if the photo exists or not, and it doesn’t matter what age they are in the photo—it’s about giving the reader a sense of their spirit. It is not uncommon for people to describe other people, to describe the background and to never get to themselves.
No wonder they struggle with their writing. There isn’t a definite sense of self on the other side of the pen or a person attached to the hands typing on the keyboard.
I wish someone had had me do this exercise when I was in college (or fifth grade) or in graduate school for writing because then maybe the fact I didn’t have a clear sense of identity would have been made clear and could have been addressed, for how can you tell a story when there is no real you doing the telling? It’s like trying to put clothes on a river.
I talked to HBL about this new project, and he said, Just write like Anne. I felt as if time had swung around and I was back on Martha’s Vineyard and he was telling me that the voice I was using was the voice I should use to write You Don’t Look Adopted.
It’s all right there.
How does Anne want to tell this story? Why does Anne want to tell this story? I realized I want to tell it because I want to see the images in my mind on the big screen, so really I’m writing to see the movie of my story instead of a book. That is helpful information. Even if I choose to write it as a novel, this information tells me to focus on image, on getting as cinematic as possible with the writing. I have to make sure I’m choosing a way to write that pleases me and that connects to how I see the world because otherwise writing is going to be like building a stone wall on a hot day.
What story do you want to tell? Why do you want to tell it? What is the one thing you want the reader to know?
In the beginning there was the Word. Just one Word. Not a Sentence. Not a Paragraph. Definitely not a book. If the world as we know it started with the Word, then so can I. And so can you.
See you tomorrow.