My second historical novel is in progress. For lack of a working title, I’m calling it Novel #2. I’ve established the setting and the characters are rounding out nicely. I’m well into researching the issues of the time, such as woman suffrage, the politics of the one-party, segregated South, and U.S. involvement and entry into World War I. All of the elements appear to be in place; the problem is, I can’t seem to begin telling the story. Numerous scenes are floating around in my head, but they are not coming together into any kind of cohesive narrative. I had begun to doubt whether this novel would ever get off the ground. This may be a terminal case of writer’s block, I thought. No wonder I’m calling it #2.
After stewing over my predicament for several weeks, I stumbled across a book, written by Stephen Koch, former professor of creative writing at Columbia University. It is an older book, published in 2003, but I found a real treasure in it’s content. The very first chapter, “Beginnings,” gave me the jump-start I needed to WRITE–not research, not journal, not Google for ideas– consistently every day for the past week.
Here are some quotes from the book that convinced me of the urgency to begin writing again:
The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now. If you like, begin the minute you finish reading this paragraph. For sure, begin before you finish reading this book. I have no doubt the day is coming when you will be wiser or better informed or more highly skilled than you are now, but you will never be more ready to begin writing than you are right this minute. The time has come. You already know what a good story looks like. You’ve already got in mind some human situation that matters to you. You need nothing more. Begin with whatever gives you the impetus to begin: an image, a fantasy, a situation, a memory, a motion, a set of people–anything at all that arouses your imagination. The job is only to get some or all of this into words able to reach and touch an unknown, unseen somebody ‘out there’ known to you as the Reader. You must plunge into it. And you must do it now. (Loc. 119 of 3966 in Kindle)
The opening paragraph of the chapter had hooked me, but what I read next caused me to put down the book and begin writing:
‘But–you may say–‘I don’t even know my story yet.’ My answer is: ‘Of course you don’t know your story yet.’ You are the very first person to tell this story, ever in the whole world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it. Then you know it. It’s not the other way around. That may sound illogical, but to the narrating mind, it is logic itself. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves–even to their tellers–only by being told. You may ask how on earth you can tell a story before you know it. You do that by letting the emerging story tell itself through you. As you tell it, you let the story give you clues about where it is going next. At first, you must feel your way, letting it be your guide. You may eventually be able to plan the whole scope of the work down to the smallest details, as J.K. Rowling is said to have done with all her Harry Potter books.
But in the very first phase of this creation, any story must be teased out from the shadows of your imagination and unconscious. As Isabel Allende says, the story is ‘hidden in a vey somber and secret place where I don’t have access yet. It is something that I have been feeling but which has no shape, no name, no tone, no voice. It is waiting for you untold, undefined, and latent.’ It will take shape only when you put it into words. So start putting it into words. Allende concludes, ‘By the time I’ve finished the first draft, I know what the book is about. But not before.’ (Loc. 168 of 3966 in Kindle)
Professor Koch’s book has helped me to push through my writer’s block. My goal now is to write every day until I have completed a first draft. Koch’s advice on first drafts is to Do it and to Do it quickly. Koch quotes Anne Lamott:
‘Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, mewling first draft. Then take out as man of the excesses as you can.’ (Loc 445 of 3966 in Kindle).
In Ray Bradbury’s words: ‘What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for style, instead of leaping upon truth, which is the only style worth dead-falling or tiger-trapping.’ (Loc 461 of 3966 in Kindle)
I have seven chapters left to read in Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, and I am looking forward to every one of them. However, until I finish my first draft of Novel # 2 (I really must get a working title better than that.), my major focus will be on writing. I suppose it all boils down to that old quotation, which has been attributed to the first century philosopher Epictetus: If you wish to be a writer, write. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.