Searchlights & Signal Flares
Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange
What do you do when a story resists you? (10/15/11)
Contributors this month:
What do you do when a story resists you? by Jamie Moore
I used to fight back. Throw aside the pen, stare menacingly at my notebook. "I'm waiting," I said out loud to my characters, arms crossed, like it was a standoff. Maybe I liked the waiting part best: I got to pace around, eat badly, and be agitated at the intangible. I pampered my procrastination. I pretended to mediate when actually taking naps on the floor. I shook my fist at the sky, cursing writer's block.
The greedy part of me wanted to have complete power over the story; to rule my made-up world without interference. I wanted to control every character choice. But then I realized that is boring. Control requires total consciousness, and that takes away from the mystical, dreamy nature of an unfolding story.
I struggle with the work of writing. Discipline isn't my thing. A huge part of me wants to wait for those special, tingly moments of inspiration where the whole world is shiny and everything is still for just enough moments to craft the best paragraph ever. But the real world makes me feel that I'm on a dim street corner, peddling for words like ecstasy pills. I learned I've been fighting the wrong fight. I can't force my will upon a character. Once I do, I began the slow pull out of fictive dream and into a muddy land of over-thinking.
In the early draft stage, when I start to feel resistance, I stop to take a breath. I don't immediately walk away. Resistance can be the verge of a discovery, the time lapse when those magic connections are subconsciously being formed. Staying focused, I take it slower. This can mean literally writing or typing slower, word by word, like tiptoeing in a dark room with only a flashlight. Tension builds as I search for what's next, trying to ignore the huge "I don't know!" flashing behind my eyes. Suddenly, a moment comes (a punctuation mark, a page break) when I can exhale again. The good fight is facing the fear of the unknown. Slow and steady pushes against resistance will feel like small victories.
Jamie Moore is completing her MFA at Antioch College and discovering the literary scene in Fresno, CA.
I Can't Tell You by Becky Povich
I wish I could say that I just keep working at it. That I stay at my laptop for hours, with no food, drinking only buckets of black coffee, taking only bathroom breaks and forcing that story out. That after sweating, crying and cursing it's the most excellent writing I've done in my entire life. It will win a Pulitzer Prize. Yes, I wish I could say all that.
The truth is when my writing resists me, I give up most of the time, at least for a while. I know I can't force it out. Sometimes, I'll just put on some different music, get a small snack, or throw a load of laundry into the washer. Then I go back to my chair, look at my open laptop, and boom, it's a light bulb moment. Eureka! Yes, sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't.
If there's a secret solution out there, please let me in on it. I need more cooperation from my story. I need answers. I need help. I need a larger coffee maker.
Becky won't give any book completion deadlines to herself anymore. They don't seem to mean a thing. What's she going to do the next time she lets a deadline slip by? Smack herself around? You can see what Becky's up to by reading her blog:
www.beckypovich.blogspot.com Or send her some encouraging, magical words at
What I Give Rein To by Catherine Crawford
I'm riding straight at the blue gate, the muscles of my horse moving smoothly beneath me. Though the animal I'm riding is perfectly trained and has the courage of a bear, my heart beats like hail on a tin roof. I'm learning to jump, but the fences keep getting higher. As the gate looms, I rise in my stirrups but hold the reins back so the horse can't stretch out. In frustration he twists and shakes his head. The reins whiz through my fingers as I hit the ground on the other side of the fence. Mercifully, I don't land on my head.
Every story I try to write is a leap into the unknown. My work with horses taught me to take risks, but I haven't mastered my fear about that. Sometimes I lose a day at my desk, like a day at the barn, when a story would rather kick up its heels and doesn't want to be written. But if my writing's really stuck, it probably needs something I'm not giving it. Usually that's guts.
My solution for this is to take a trail ride down the yellow brick road that leads to the Land of Oz. On that course I rediscover this tale's wonderful lesson that I already have everything I need to do my work, including courage. I don't need the twinkle of red shoes. Or a wizard who's only smoke and mirrors. I won't get dumped if I refuse to quit, which is what fear tells me to do.
When I approach a story bravely and ask what it wants, it usually knows. It doesn't say "I want to be published." That's my problem. It wants to live. When a piece resists me, I think of the equestrian wisdom "Throw your heart over the fence, and the horse will follow." I know this is true. I know my story can't take off when I cling to its neck or give it a nasty jab in the mouth.
Catherine sat on the fence a long time before she moved to the Pacific Northwest, which she loves. Her email is E-Mail Bob Robertsgreenwriter1960@gmail.com
Playing Tag by Claudia Larson
The story runs ahead of me, turning every now and then to watch me chasing it before slipping away faster than before. I rest, sitting on the grass beneath the oak tree, beneath the gibbous moon, while fledgling barn owls holler from a nearby redwood tree. Raccoons, their faces night-camouflaged, follow their noses to the cats' food dishes, while a skunk points its way through orchard grass. A frog sings to the night. Wishies, those soft, seed parachutes, answer with invisible voices, saying "Here I am." I wait, watch, listen until rosy fingers melt the dark sky and mist rises from the sleeping pasture. I open my hands. The story licks my fingertips before curling up to sleep in my lap.
Claudia Larson is daydreaming about which fruit trees to add to her orchard in Sebastopol, CA.
Over the line by David S. Johnson
There are two scars on my fingers. Really, it's one scar given across two fingers. A story of a knife that's worth telling another time. These fingers are on the hand that outlined a story. A short story. I wrote names on the top of the page and events down the page. Three-quarters of the way down, I drew a line. This was a line of climax. This is where a character died.
Only the character wouldn't die. The other characters approached the line, but wouldn't cross it. The character to die, she milled about the top of the page like a wraith. Some characters approached the line, looked over the edge but would not cross. Others simply turned perpendicular to the line to tease and mock. I was not in control. They resisted. I pleaded, bribed and scolded them. They simply toed the ground mindlessly with their heads down and hands behind their back like children who don't know why they did what they did.
I did finally kill her - I dragged her across the line. But almost immediately she was pulled back across to the top of the page. Why so much resistance? It was as if there was a thin line across the midsection of these characters that held them or pulled them back from the line. I followed one of the lines and found it attached to a hand with one scar shared across two fingers.
David Samuel Johnson is over the line in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Called into Service by Don Edgers
Obstinate stories are like reserve soldiers, waiting to be reworked, salvaged or called into active duty by being placed into parts of other stories.
I originally wrote the following to explain my social ineptness:
When I was 13 I took ballroom dance lessons. Several of my 8th grade friends also wrangled with their mothers about an activity as appealing as attending an opera.
Every Friday we "whipped puppies" were loaded into a car and driven to downtown Seattle to spend an hour with many other 8th graders from all over the city. Just about everybody there had the same expression of utter amazement that so many mothers had hooked their kids into taking dance lessons.
The lady who taught us must've worked on a cattle ranch, judging from the way she herded us around. The girl I got paired with was as mute as me; however, it's impossible to talk when you're holding your breath. We were directed in the box step and actually had to touch our dancing partner and move in unison. I felt like making a break for it, but noticed Mom was watching my every move like a cat observing a mouse, plus if I made it past her, there was a gauntlet of other mothers I'd have to get past.
As I stumbled my way through, I noticed my partner had a face and a blue eye. I tried to smile, but sensed that my lips might split, so tried to speak ventriloquist-style. The sound that emerged from my mouth momentarily scared both of us, but my attempt to communicate ended when our teacher announced: "You will now do the box step to music!"
As the music started I messed up, but under the mothers' eyes I kept going, reasoning that if I could rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time, why not move my feet in a pattern to music? Before the end of the record I was able to get my eyes off my feet and actually glance at my partner to see that she had blonde hair and a nice looking right ear.
Next, we were to introduce ourselves. I blurted out, in a higher than normal pitch, "My name's — — uh, —Don. What's yours?"
She was slow to whisper something, so I snuck a peek to see the unseen parts of her head and saw that she had a left ear, eyebrows, another blue eye, a nose and mouth.
She realized that I wasn't able to hear what she said, so in a barely audible voice she said, "Cathy."
I noticed she had braces, which actually didn't look all that bad. Truthfully, I didn't care if she had two heads and came from another planet — I had just talked to the first girl outside of my school, and we had learned how to dance!
I fit this story into a chapter of An Island in Time II: Coming of age in the 1950's called ‘Fox Island Girls.'
What do you do when a story resists? by Marilyn Petty
All morning I have been waiting for story to quit resisting. I cleaned my glasses, ate half a banana, made a phone call, checked my calendar, washed some Cormo fleece, spread it out to dry, swept the kitchen floor, all to no avail. Story ignores me and I don't know who is the more resistant. Me, waiting, or the story. I tried writing through, over, under, around it. Intellect, genius, imagination, experience, talent — none of them, presuming I possess any or all - has released story from its restraints. The only choice left is to turn words loose, toss them in the air, let them land on a clean sheet of paper, juggle them around and see what happens. Tell it like a story, as it were.
Marilyn Petty keeps track of things in Santa Rosa and hopes for the best.
IM WITH SAINT MISHA by Sara Baker
Hlp me, St Misha! Nuffin hapNs. Patron demon of blank pg has dominion ovr me, my ideas, & my story. I get cup a tea, bagel, & evn som chclt secretly hidN in cupboard. Iam Xcited thinkN, "GRT idea; Ill rit astoundN ms." But still ABSOLUTELY NUFFIN HAPNS. s2rys resisting me; UR Russias Patron St of Cre8tivity. pls tel me what2do.
I feel yr pain. yr ritN demons & daemons colliding & demons R winN…BTW…. clMe Misha
Misha, I undRstand demons, but U lost me @ daemons. watR ritN daemons? Xpln clMe Sara
Sara, Hrd 2 xpln. 1st U need to detach frm cre8tivity. RemMbR cre8tivity like spyrit & is sumthng owtsd of u…..almost god-like that izunt u. Greeks cal em daemons. Romans cal em geniuses. Daemon is knd spyrit dat Nspires u but demon a malignant spyrit dat owns u. Demons block U frm yr daemons.
Wat R sum comN demons?
Perfectionism, thinkN2much, fear of failure, doutNyrslf, & fatigue
Misha, ur ys! TY! Ny oder wrds of wis?
RemMbR wetha ms succeeds or fails, izunt wholly urs. Kip on ritN & remMbR 2 detach!
Sara Baker is a contented retiree who is learning the art of instant messaging her family and friends; she joyfully works part-time as an editor/proofreader and freelance writer. Her favorite pastime, however, is spending time with her soul mate, Bill, with whom she has been married for 28 years.
At Your Service by Susan Bono
I begin with intimidation, of course. Even after all these years, my first impulse is to smooth my black leather gloves and announce in my best Hollywood German accent, "Ve haff veys to mekk you tawk." My threats produce a few squeaks of terror from my story, some mumbled confessions that may or may not be true. At least I've learned not to assume I've broken through. I've been suckered too many times before.
Cajoling comes next, along with offerings of many sweet and salty snacks. "Oh, my leibchen, rest a while. Would you care for some cream in your coffee, a sweet roll?" In the old days, I gave my stories cigarettes and gin, but I got worn down trying to keep up. Sometimes my kindness yields a tidbit or two, even though the weight I've gained trying to seduce my stories isn't really worth it. Dancing with my story used to work wonders, but somehow I never think of that unless gin has entered the picture. Sometimes I take my stories to the movies or the circus, but then we all get distracted.
What really works, I'm not too happy to report, is this: when my stories flinch, dummy up or try to hide, it's time for the tables to turn. I must surrender, kneel and offer the nape of my neck to the sword, should there be one. I must let go of my dreams of control and stop trying to make my story do my bidding. I must remember the words of Russell Hoban who said, "I am in service of the work that enters me. It takes me where it needs to go."
Instead of threats or empty calories or mindless distractions, I must offer my stories sacrifices on an altar built of honesty and vulnerability. "Tell me what you require of me," I whisper. "Please." My desire to hear the truth becomes my prayer.
Susan Bono is trying to be of service in Petaluma, CA.
Searchlights Editor: Susan Bono
Columnists: C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders
Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow
Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.
Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.
Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for 52perfectdays.com, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email: email@example.com
Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.
Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at Writergal53@aol.com, or visit her blog at www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.
Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at: TheresaLSanders@charter.net
Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.
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