Friday, July 12, 2013

Unusual Procrastinations, "Watering Dead Wood with Tears," and Other Ways to Stay Hooked on Your Writing

After thirteen books, I know all about falling out of love with my own writing.  I recognize my own stall-outs and tricks.  I've created a thousand exercises and ways to combat this, accept it, keep writing anyway.

This week I discovered an unusual procrastination--one that worked so well, I wanted to share it with you.
Writing a book is more of a marriage than a date.  You're in it for the long(er) haul.  You need to stay hooked.  Or else one of you--probably the book--will pull a Thelma and Louise.

Acedia--A New Take on Procrastination
On Monday I begin teaching at the beautiful and creative art school on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, where I spend three glorious weeks each summer and fall.  In these retreats, we do many different exploratory exercises, all designed to give the writer a new perspective on the book.   I've been exploring a new exercise called a River Chart.  I introduced my stubborn novel-in-progress to it this past weekend, and they hit it off really well.



The River Chart is especially effective because it looks like procrastination--not writing.  But it is all about writing.  It works because it calms the Inner Critic, who is ever alert to risk on the page and keeping you safe. 

The River Chart started with a word I learned from writer Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me:  A Marriage, Monks, and the Writer's Life  (thanks to Nancy L. for sending this along!).

Acedia is a state of boredom, melancholia, distance, and distraction, a "slothful, soul-weary indifference" that is different from depression.  It means a lack of will.  Not wanting, not caring, even.  It's well known by monastics, according to Norris.  And for writers, it can happen when we give up hope or fall out of love with our beloved books.  We stop bringing flowers or even calling.  We let the dust accumulate and distract ourselves away from this all-important relationship.

Sometimes we think we are procrastinating, but maybe not.  Maybe we have just falling into a state of acedia.  And the remedies, as I discovered, are often different than just pushing ourselves to perform again.  How can you push when the will is gone?  Maybe it requires a deeper look at the problem.

Watering Dead Wood with Tears
Norris shares the story of an abba who gave a piece of dry wood to one of his followers and told him to water it until the wood bore fruit.  Norris comments on how cruel this seemed to her, yet in nurturing parts of her own life over the years, she has often found herself "watering dead wood with tears, and with very little hope."  She says, "I have also been astonished by how those tears have allowed life to emerge out of what has seemed dead."

I run into acedia when I have hit a new skill to practice, and suddenly
I feel very inadequate.  Or I realize a character in my novel is still not coming alive on the page, and I have no idea how to make it so.

Norris suggests we must water our "dead wood" of a story to allow it to grow again.   


River (Chart) Full of Tears
On my River Chart I drew a snaking river.  I marked the important stages of my book journey.  What I wanted from each part of the trip.  Where I was now and what I imagined.  It all bored me.  The next step, however, did not.

I stepped back for a better view.  I tried an exercise about conscious metaphor.  What images drew me (in the room where I sat) and what might they have to tell me about why I was out of love with my story? 

I listed some weird items.  A fireplace poker, a woven stool, the yellow kitchen shelf.  I let my intense focus drift away and I imagined what these items could represent, if they were images in my book journey.  It was as if I learned a new language, in the process, and I came out with the reverse of what I expected.  (Note:  This exercise is adapted from Martha Beck's wonderful book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.)

My book wanted me to take more time, go slower.  "But we're almost at the finish line!" I cried.  "We need to get to know each other even more," it replied.

I thought back to all the good feedback I've gotten from readers I respect, all the techniques I've tried:  switching to different viewpoints, adding new characters, changing the plot, enhancing the setting, altering pacing and theme.  I've worked hard, harder than I imagined I could.  Now the book wanted more getting-to-know-you time?

I had confused "blahs" with procrastination.  As I worked deeper into the River Chart exercise, I learned how pushing hard can also be procrastination, if I am avoiding looking deeper into the book.  Like a frenetic holiday when a good talk is what's really needed, activity isn't always the answer.  Stepping back and pondering the big picture was an antidote.  A spa weekend with my beloved.

My River Chart exercise has five components, but this last one revealed the most gold for me as I saw that I'd forgotten the real reason I was writing this novel.

Why Are You Writing This Book?
As a writer, I am after meaning in my work.  I want my books to be much more than entertainment.  My first novel, Qualities of Light, was published in 2009, and I got a flood of letters, emails, and texts about its meaning.  In brief, the story is about Molly, who at 16 has two big events:  she almost kills her young brother who falls into a coma, and she falls in love with her best friend, another girl.  But the real story is about Molly and her dad, and how Molly ends up saving the family during this tragedy via her love for him. 

Acedia had visited because, in my effort to polish sentences, I had distanced myself from the meaningful element in my current novel.  It's no wonder--this book is much more complex, with four point-of-view characters, all circling around a pilot who goes missing during a plane crash in the mountains.  The plot was there, the people were onstage.

But the meaning, the message?  My dead wood was evident.  The River Chart pointed to what I'd been avoiding as I worked hard and harder on the revision.

It would be great if editors and readers could help find the meaning of your book for you.  Nobody but the writer can find the message in her or his manuscript.  Why?  Because the message has to come from the writer's deepest places, or it feels "tacked on" and artificial. 

Writing Molly's story caused me to go to the far ends of my safety zone--and beyond.  I wondered what would take me to this same kind of risk in my story about the missing pilot. 

What Are Your Next Steps?
Are you experiencing acedia with your beloved book?  Is there a kind of spiritual torpor or apathy, lack of care about your project and your creativity?  Take a rest break from it and chart its journey.  See where you wanted to end up and where you've changed direction without realizing it.

This week, look at what you are calling procrastination.  See if it's actually a clue to falling back in love with your story.