In my last post, http://www.fortheloveofwriting.net/writers-block/, I mentioned that I was suffering from writer’s block and that I had turned to a book entitled The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch, in hopes of finding suggestions on getting unstuck and, more specifically, on what to do to move the story line of my historical novel along.
In the very first chapter, I found the following thesis, which seemed at first both ambiguous and contradictory:
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…Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves–even to their tellers–only by being told. (Loc 151 of 3966 in Kindle).
As though he realized that I, as a reader, would be unconvinced by that statement, Koch, a former professor of creative writing at Columbia University, provided anecdotal evidence from numerous authors of considerable success and fame to support his claim. I’ve included only a sampling:
The story is hidden in a very somber and secret place where I don’t have access yet…By the time I have finished the first draft, I know what the book is about, not before. (Loc 168 of 3966 in Kindle).
With Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: Trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was president. One thing led to another, and that’s the way that book began, through desperation to those few images. (168 of 3966 in Kindle).
When I started writing that story (“Good Country People”) I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, and when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable. (202 of 3966 in Kindle).
Bradbury is said to generate stories through free association, by listing image after image, looking for “a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds...“(185 of 3966 in Kindle).
I was still skeptical of the notion that a writer must tell the story before she knows it, as I always assumed that the story must exist in the writer’s head prior to writing it down. But who am I to argue with the proven experiences of authors who have published exemplary works of literary fiction, not merely once but multiple times? Or, with a professor who has mentored hundreds of aspiring writers? Besides, my story drain was clogged and I needed something to get it moving again. I had to try something.
I resolved to write and not look back until I had completed a first draft. Since my last post, I have managed to do some writing every day, with sessions varying from one to six hours. I am up to 6,148 words–a little over sixteen pages. Sixteen pages does not a draft make; but, at least the drains are unclogging and beginning to work again.
The story, which takes up in 1913, several years after Hattie’s Place left off, is beginning to reveal itself. Hattie Robinson–now Mrs. Charles Barton–is learning to cope with the responsibilities of raising four stepsons, running an estate, and assuming the various social obligations which come with being married to one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Pickens County, South Carolina.
As happy as she is with her new life, she cannot deny the loss of identity she feels over giving up her teaching career and her independence as a single woman, to focus on family and home. Hattie needs a cause to believe in and promote. She soon finds one in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
When Hattie accompanies Charles to Washington, D.C., to attend the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, a southerner and the first Democrat to win the presidency since Grover Cleveland, she becomes a spectator in the Suffrage Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, which has been strategically planned for the day before the inauguration. Hattie witnesses firsthand the elegance, courage, and dignity of the women, dressed in their formal attire, advancing their gold and purple banners, and leading the call for the passage of an amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.
Hattie knows that she has found her just cause and pledges herself that day to join the national movement. Yet to unravel are the details of the story that must play out between 1913, when Hattie commits herself to work for woman’s suffrage, and 1920, when she is finally eligible to go to the polls and cast her vote in the presidential election.
Can Hattie have it all? Can she maintain her relationship with Charles, be a good mother to the children, and pursue her passion to advance the cause of women? Will she meet the challenge to become an agent of change, despite living in a state which has been recalcitrant in its opposition to woman suffrage, a state which has been virtually written off by the national women’s organization because of its repeated failure to move forward? These are only a few of the questions that the story must answer before it winds to an end.
For now, the words are flowing and the first draft is proceeding at a good pace. Goodness knows what a jumble of words I’ll find when it is finished and I go back and read it. I will, no doubt be in for a marathon of revisions. Clearly, though, the story is emerging just as Stephen Koch et al. said it would, and I will know what it is by the time I finish the draft.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress, and please, if any of you out there know other remedies for writer’s block, share them with us in the comment section above.