Most writers I know have more than one project swirling around in their heads at any given time. They’re not necessarily–and in fact, usually aren’t–working on all of them, but the ideas are there. Perpetual generation is part of having a creative brain. It’s why I don’t know how to answer people who ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of running out of things to write about?” I can’t conceive of a universe in which that might happen. It’s also why I find no solace when people try to lighten my unpleasant life experiences by saying, “At least you’ll get a story out of it.” I have enough stories, thank you. I don’t need real life trials to give me inspiration.
I know some writers who work best with their fingers in several pies, who can juggle half a dozen projects at once and be fine. I am not one of those writers. While I may have multiple projects in mind, I find it difficult to focus on more than one at a time. I’ve long used this metaphor: I think of my stories as people banging on drums. I can hear them all, but I have to attend to the one that’s the loudest. The others will simply have to wait. But lately, I’ve been faced with a new predicament: what to do when I can’t hear any of them.
It’s no secret that my new novel isn’t going so well. After attempting every jumpstart-your-writing strategy in existence, I have come to the painful conclusion that I have to step away from it for a bit. I’ve reached the point where I’m approaching the book with resentment. There’s always a certain amount of dread when facing the blank page, but it’s also always accompanied by a tugging, a desire to be in my imaginary world, even if being there is at once both a pleasure and a pain. I’ve lost that desire. I’ve stopped thinking of this novel as something I get to write, but as something I have to write–as in, “Oh crap, I have to work on this now.” Not exactly the best frame of mind with which to approach a novel.
So while I’m not a dabbler, I thought, that in laying the novel aside, I might instead pick up one of the other stories that have been beating drums in my brain. I made that attempt this weekend and quickly learned those other stories don’t want to talk to me either. What I wrote was pages of endless dribble, and the whole time, I was thinking, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t a story.” It needs to be noted that this problem is different than the problem of having nothing to write about. This is the problem of having many things to write about, but having lost the tools with which to do it. It’s as though my creative world has crossed a divide that I can’t breach. My characters banded together to build a bridge over a ravine, and once they reached the other side, they tore it down, leaving me behind on the opposite cliff.
For most of my writing life, I’ve felt characters clinging to my body. Some to my pant legs like kittens or infants, some with arms wrapped around my back like reassuring friends, and still others with their hands digging into my face, like the men I have to write and write and write about before their images will leave me. No imaginary people are clinging to me now. They’re sitting around a campfire with their backs to me, and I’m standing outside the circle, in the dark, while they discuss amongst themselves how best to live their lives without me.
I imagine this is something akin to watching one’s children leave the nest. How can they leave me? I created them. I know them better than they know themselves. I want to shout at them–Carmela, you’re not meant to stay in the monastery, and you have to let me write you out. Kieran and Annaleigh, that baby will be born, and you have to let me follow you around until it is. Grier, Kanon, Anika, this grief over Cherie’s death will pass, but how can it when you won’t let me work you through it? Cecilia, Piper, Gina Rae, we’ve all been faced with tough circumstances, so can’t we walk those paths together? And Orpheus, Emmaline, I feel your very different pains most of all, so please, let’s carry one other.
Nothing. It’s like when kids play that game where one of you is dead, and the others then refuse to acknowledge your presence. Right now, I could run into that circle screaming, pull my characters’ hair, or jump into the fire, and they wouldn’t even look up. I could try to coax them lovingly, with flattery, and still, I would be met with apathy. I’ve had dry spells before, but this feels different. And me being me, I worry that it’s permanent. Last night, I had dinner at a friend’s, and someone asked me what I do. I said I was a writer, and immediately, I felt like a liar. I wondered if I still had the right to make that claim. But to admit that my day job is all that I do–that wounds me in places I can’t even name.
This isn’t a pride thing. It’s not even an identity thing. It’s all of that and none of that and everything in between. And then I think of my finished book, the novel-in-stories I completed over a year ago and have yet to find a home for, and I wonder if perhaps those characters are on the verge of leaving me, too. I don’t know what to do. Writers and non-writers have given me advice, but none of it pans out. None of it changes the fact that I am outside of the circle, and no amount of effort on my part is getting me back in.
So, there it is, and here I am. I’m sitting at my desk, on this chilly October day, my last Monday off before I begin a new work schedule, and I’m thinking that after ninety days of sun, the rain has returned, and Oregon feels like Oregon again. And you know what? I missed it. I missed the calm that descends when people retreat indoors. I missed scarves and umbrellas and hats. I missed blankets. I don’t know if it’s the change of seasons, the dramatic shift that an office job has brought to my day-to-day life, the fact that I’m not writing, or all of it, but I want to put down so much of my current existence. I keep thinking of a line from Legends of the Fall, when wild, restless Tristan returns to the ranch after years of wandering, and One Stab says, “It was then that Tristan entered the quiet part of his life.”
The quiet part of his life. What does that look like? I’m not sure, but it feels like admitting that I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of thinking that if I go there or do this or be that, it’ll solve something. I’m tired of trying to force things that don’t want to be forced and losing sleep because I want to fix things that are beyond my control. I’m tired of tugging and yanking at my characters in vain. I’m tired, so this is when I drag my weary body up to their circle and say, “If I promise not to speak, can I sit with you?” And maybe then, they’ll make room for me. I’ll take up a rock between Orpheus and Emmaline and watch the fire late into the night. I’ll drink from the bottle of whiskey they’re passing from hand to hand, accept a drag from the communal cigarette. I will stay with them and keep quiet as long as it takes–weeks, years, forever–and perhaps, by my silence, they’ll understand that when one of them is ready to talk, I will be ready to listen.