Last summer, I got stuck in the novel I was writing.
It had all been going so well, for quite a while there. That is, after the first few months of the pandemic, which distracted me so badly I couldn’t do any creative work. That was hard, but eventually I stopped baking so many crumpets and lemon bars and skillet breads and crème brûlées, found a rhythm, and started writing again.
Well, and then there was a very intrusive copy edit on the previous novel, which knocked me off my game for a while. It took some time to recover from the ill effects of that. To un-break my voice.
But once I got over those things and found my way back into the new novel one more time, the writing was clicking smoothly along. I was writing most every day, making my word-count goal easily. Occasionally they would be the wrong words, but never more than a handful. I would notice I’d made a misstep (usually in the last few hundred words of any day’s writing, when I was tired and just ready to be done), and I would fix them and move forward.
But then there came a point when I pushed forward as usual, and…steered all the way into an entirely wrong detour. I knew where I was trying to go, and I knew what would happen when I got there — I could see that part very clearly — but the path I had set out on was just all wrong.
And I didn’t know how to fix it.
To me, this part of writing a novel, this I’m 85 percent there and completely lost part, feels like being alone in a very small, dark, overstuffed closet. If it were organized, there would be plenty of room in here for all the things that belong here: the boxes go on shelves; the coats go on big hangers; the shoes hang in a nice shoe tree — once everything is in order, it will be functional and delightful and I’ll be so proud to show it off to everyone.
But now? I’m tripping over boxes, and loose junk is just tossed willy-nilly into every corner, and dresses have fallen off their hangers and are tangled on the floor, and there’s packing paper wadded up all over the place, and a bunch of belts that don’t even fit me anymore are draped over the pole — and, making it all even more impossible, the light bulb is burned out so I can’t see anything.
My husband is also a writer, and he loves to work out his story tangles aloud, bouncing ideas off me. It helps him immeasurably; he can’t understand half of what he needs to know until he talks it out.
It’s just the opposite with me. I tell him that I’m stuck, and he offers to talk about it, to help me work it through, but — well, I’m in this already-too-crowded closet. I know things are in the wrong places and on the wrong shelves, but there’s no room in here for anyone else to come in and help. There’s hardly enough room for me. Later, when I get it better sorted out, when I break down the empty cardboard boxes and combine some things that are the same thing and toss out some clothes that don’t even belong to me, then I could use some help. Then I will welcome in an editor, a reader, someone to come in and kibitz. When I have all the big pieces where they belong, then I can use help fine-tuning which boxes go on which shelves, which coats need to be tucked back in the corner (or moved to the attic), which forgotten embroidered cape should be moved front and center.
But not now, not when I’m in this place. When I’m in there in the dark alone, that’s just the way it’s gotta be.
I’m pretty sure I know what this is: it’s the different parts of my brain in conflict with one another. There’s the raw, unbridled creativity that generates story in the first place. Any story — novel, short story, poem. Even a navel-gazing essay about writing process. This part is in direct conflict with the part that insists that this all has to make sense sooner or later, has to pencil out. That the things the characters do at the beginning and the middle of the story mean something, they aren’t just random wacky stuff that sounded cool at the time. That everything ties together at the end.
I love that first part of writing anything, the unbridled part. When the possibilities are limitless, when you can just follow the path the story wants to take. Sometimes, it flows so easily, it’s like reading a good book — except the book is coming out of your own fingers, on your own keyboard. It’s like magic.
I’ve never gotten all the way to the end of a story on that wave of magic. Sooner or later, the rational brain has to come in and make sense of it all.
With a good enough outline, though, it’s possible to step confidently through the plot all the way to the end of the story, without stumbling. I’ve written a number of novels in three or four weeks from kick-ass outlines. They were solid, tight, entertaining, perfectly fine novels.
But I didn’t have a good outline for this book. I had a page of scribbled notes, and some of the notes were “NO” and “what about ___?” and “figure this out later.” Perversely, this project was too complicated, and too important to me, for a well-thought-through outline.
This was the third book in a four-book series, that I started more than a decade ago, which has changed so much in that time, but is the story of my heart. I know all the big things that happen, but I don’t know how they happen, and sometimes I don’t even know when they happen.
I was too close. I couldn’t see it. (And it was too damn dark in there.)
I thought I knew where this book needed to end up but just didn’t know how to get there. The wrong path I started on before I got stuck wasn’t necessarily a bad idea; it was just way too similar to something I did in an earlier book. When the main character pointed this out to me, said, Gee, this reminds me of…, I realized I’d screwed up.
The only thing to do at that point was stop making it worse. Step out of the closet; maybe even leave the room altogether. Take a walk; make pickles; weed the garden; write an essay.
But I did have a deadline; I couldn’t just let it sit until inspiration struck.
So after a week or two I headed back into that closet. I moved a few things around, tossed some boxes out to see what would happens. I had to cut the last few thousand words I’d written, which always hurts, but it was the right thing to do.
And eventually, it…the temptation is to say that “it fell into place,” but that’s not exactly true. I wrestled it into place—but only the place it was willing to go. I moved big chunks of the story around. I ultimately realized I’d written the ending of the book in the middle, thinking it belonged there. I fixed that. I fixed a dozen other things.
I finished the book.
Now I’m stuck in its sequel. Ha! If I thought the third installment of a quartet was challenging…the grand finale is kicking my butt.
For now, at least. Just for now.
I’ll make sense of this closet too, sooner or later.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Medium.com.