Writing in the Dark
“In the dark times,
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Well, my dears, here we are. Living through the dark times. I’m sending out a warm hug and a quarantine pack to everyone reading this, hoping you and yours are well.
If you’re anything like me, reading the news and headlines right now is enough to limit all writing ability for the day–and perhaps even the week. I try to limit my exposure to social media like Twitter, but that leaves me feeling very isolated as I shelter-in-place with my husband in our tiny studio apartment. So, in light of this constant back-and-forth–can’t write, need to distract, now I’m distracted and I can’t write–I’ve been thinking about how to write during difficult emotional times.
There’s a lot of advice out there about this. Some of the worst I’ve seen is, “Should you really be a writer if you can’t write right now?” (Really?!) But I think the most important thing about *any* writing advice is to realize that none of it is law. Take what you need and leave the rest.
That being said, here’s what I’m turning to for help writing in the dark.
- Try writing in a notebook instead of a computer.
Many writers I know, myself included, have a tendency to collect notebooks. We can’t help it. We are the dragon hoarders of blank pages.
If you, too, have a pile of pretty notebooks that you were too afraid to write in before now–after all, you don’t want to mess them up–well, the moment has come. Break them out. Mess them up all you want. Scribble and brainstorm with word clouds and mark up those pages. Let loose your inhibitions and just play with words. I think writing on paper has a bigger sense of the “unedited” for me, probably because I *know* that if the paper story is going anywhere, I have to type it first. It has to go through at least one round of revisions. So, be free. Fill up those pages. Bask in the glorious beauty of your hoard.
2. Write the weirdest project you have.
Times are crazy. Reality is skewed. Why not write the book that you’re afraid is too weird for the world? Or how about a chapbook of poems about your nose hairs? Let’s be real, the *world* is weird right now. So there is no better time to break out the story you think no one will ever read.
Let go of your usual “you can’t do that!” editor voices. You should probably do this anyway when you’re drafting, but the idea behind choosing a wild story is that this might come a bit easier to you. Anxiety can amplify these voices during the worst of times. Try turning them off entirely, and you might have more fun.
3. Write a story in another world.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do right now is write my contemporary romance novel set in modern day London. Go to restaurants and museums? Ride the Tube? Are my characters insane?
No, this seems like a much better time to write my fantasy novel set in a world of my own making. There’s still suffering, but it’s under my control in a way that the real world just isn’t right now (or ever… but that’s another blog for another day). Neverland, ancient history, fantasy Japan, the Ottoman empire but with magic–any of these places sound more appealing right now. So go there. Leave the real world behind for a while. It’ll always be here when you come back.
Chasing the Muse
There’s a scene from the show LOST that has always stuck with me. In it, John Locke trudges through the dark jungle with another character, Ben, at his side. Locke tells Ben how the island has chosen him, how being there is his destiny. And Ben drops a bit of harsh knowledge: “Destiny, John, is a fickle bitch.”
I’ve always liked that line, partly for its humor and partly for its truth. But it resonates with my artist sense in particular. Because I think you could equally say, “The Muse is a fickle bitch.”
She comes and goes at will and leisure. She makes you crazy. Like a lover who drives you mad with seduction and departure, she lures you and leaves you. She’s tempestuous, to say the least.
But part of chasing your Muse is first accepting this. For example, I used to spend a lot of time feeling guilty over the areas where my story ideas overlapped with the stories of others. It’s not original enough, I thought.
That could be said of any story. To deny the places where you draw inspiration from others is to deny your Muse.
So, instead, I’ve been thinking lately about embracing said Muse–when she’s around, at least. Here are some ideas I came up with:
Make a list of all the recent stories that inspired you.
Think of this as a story journal, in a way. Saw a movie that you thought about afterward for days? Jot it down. Maybe add what, in particular, stuck with you. Main character? Or a B plot? What about that is in your wheelhouse? Repeat.
Return to this list when you need inspiration. Is there anything on it that you can combine to make something new and entirely your own?
Keep a spreadsheet of your story ideas.
I use Google Sheets, because it’s free with a Google account and I can access it from anywhere. But you might prefer Microsoft Excel or some other program. Whichever it is, make sure it’s easily accessible to you and you can make changes without a lot of effort. This is not for word processing. This is just to keep track of those fleeting glimpses of a larger story that are taking up real estate in your brain, e.g. “Barn story,” “ghost girl school,” “spirit cairns,” etc. When your Muse leaves you for one story, pull open this list. Who knows, you may be inspired to write another one for a while.
Make story playlists.
I do this all the time when I’m outlining a story idea. Many of my ideas start with characters, not necessarily plot, so I’ll pick out a few songs that match those characters’ aesthetics or struggles and then go from there. Once your playlist is decently filled out, you can listen to it while you’re driving, walking, or doing chores–and then think about your characters at the same time. Lots of story outlines have grown from the Muse’s visits during these playlist “character meditation sessions.”
Don’t beat yourself up when the Muse is gone.
This is key. We all have moments when the Muse deserts us. For me, at least, it’s easy for depression to follow, and suddenly I’m listing a litany of ways in which I’ve failed as a writer–not being dedicated enough, etc. Yes, it’s true, you have to finish things to be a successful writer. But giving yourself a mental break from time to time is necessary if you don’t want to burn out. Find the rhythm and flow that balances wellbeing with writing time. Not everyone writes every day!
The short version of all this is: when something fuels your Muse, embrace it. When she gets chased away or distracted, don’t worry. She’ll come back. Most of all, remember to have fun with it. There are reasons why YOU are best suited to tell the stories you want to tell. Own them.
The writing process through the eyes of a child
My writing journey began when I was a young girl – maybe eleven or twelve years old. I was deep in the thrall of Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, and Lloyd Alexander, my head full of my own take on those wonderful stories. My relationship with writing started when I asked, “What if?”
What if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter? What if *I* attended Hogwarts? What if I lived on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the century? What if I lived in a kingdom like Prydain, surrounded by magic and cauldrons and prophetical pigs?
Now, I’m not saying the stories that came out of those questions were any good, but it sure was fun to try answering them. And more questions came up in their place, questions like “What would life be like for this character instead of me?” and “What if I were to invent my own kingdom? What would it be like?” Before long I was filling notebooks with my pretend kingdom’s name, geography, history, and culture. I was drawing characters (very badly) and naming them things like Spellsong and Chrysanthea.
While my drawing ability has remained much the same (i.e. horrible), I like to think my stories have improved since then, asking more complex questions and peopling their worlds with more complicated, interesting characters (sorry, Spellsong). Over time, though, it has also been harder to keep hold of the thrill I felt when planning a story as a kid.
Back then, it was all pure, unbridled joy and excitement at asking myself, “What if?” Now, after that first initial flash of inspiration, I find myself asking other “what if” questions instead: What if this story has already been written before, and written better? What if I can’t do justice to the idea in my head? What if these characters, this plot, this setting is boring, familiar, overdone?
What if I fail?
Not only do these questions make it extremely difficult to get words on the page, they tend to make those words stilted and horrible. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy, these doubts. So this year, I’m making a concerted effort to silence those questions, starting before the writing even begins.
Time to borrow back the excitement of planning a story from twelve-year-old me.