Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

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Red Herring in the Hot Tub

I had a long, sleepless night during my kid’s recent bout with a nasty mystery illness. Late-night DIY diagnosis effort: I googled “rash,” “fever,” “children.” Try it yourself some time for an authentic sense of this paranoia-piquing experience. I lay awake for hours next to my itchy son, thinking.

I mentally backtracked through his every known experience over the past week, reverse-engineering recognition of symptom onset and contagion opportunity. Was this a virus passed on from that sick kid at the grocery store? An allergy to the new mattress? An eczema reaction to the kiddie hot tub at our neighborhood public pool? I scrabbled through my memory for signs, symbols, dire foreshadowing. There’s a story here somewhere.

Hindsight apophenia: finding all possible past incidents of should-have-seen-the-signs that one’s memory can produce. When put to its most evil purpose, hindsight apophenia is a boundless source of regret, blame, and self-doubt. This seemed especially true at 1:00 AM, in bed next to a feverish toddler.

But at its most beneficent, hindsight apophenia makes for great stories.

Artistic conventions of storytelling invoke an apopheniac mindset. Foreshadowing, symbolism, poetic language echoing a theme – all these devices play on the reader’s self-induced superstition, the viewer’s sense of foreboding. A writer weaves a story beyond mere linearity by reverse-engineering a path to the big reveal. By crafting parallels with plot clues, symbols, and semiotics. By putting to use the mind’s natural propensity for apophenia.

A storyteller assigns meaning to the seemingly random, and then enforces the semantic weight of this crafted pattern through the story’s outcome.

Readers and viewers appreciate – and expect – a pattern of meaning to lead us to the finale of a novel or film. Random stimulus like that found in real life is called a red herring in a story’s universe. No red herrings, we futilely ask of life. We ask this in vain, and we know it, and yet our best stories unabashedly reinforce the apopheniac mindset. Keep looking for those signs, our minds concede upon finishing a particularly satisfying tale.

There’s a story here somewhere, we think as we venture out into the chaos.

Profane Space

By necessity, I’ve had to dispense with all former notions of writing’s preciousness. During this busy phase of life, I don’t have the luxury of fretting about sacred space or grand expanses of uninterrupted time. I must swiftly, flexibly invoke a writing mind-frame when the opportunity arises. Waiting room at the doctor’s office. Park bench over lunch hour. Dark living room, pre-dawn insomnia.

I like it.

There’s no time for overthinking, because this – the lunch hour, the early hour, the office wait – is it. In this stage of my life, this is genuinely the kind of time I have to write.

Mad skills are required to take advantage of these pockets of time: colloquially, literally mad. I keep hypergraphic notebooks with me, and I leave them around my home. They’re in the car, at bedside, sitting on the kitchen countertop. I write down bits and pieces of story-thoughts whenever they arise. In my head, I troubleshoot plot holes during my commute to work and run through dialogue out loud. Regularly,  before I fall asleep at night, I visualize entire scenes.

When I finally get that open lunch hour or bout of insomnia, I gather notes and thoughts. I try assembling them into some sort of piece. A scene. A beat. A chapter. Maybe just a paragraph.

Hypergraphia. Obsession. Cathexis. Compulsion. Creating this story has invoked insanity, with no sacred space to keep it confined.

I like it.