Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.