Lately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?
This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?
The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.
I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?
Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.
George Saunders recently told The New Yorker:
Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.
This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.
And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.
In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.
And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.
- Guest Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: On Sondheim and Whether Lyrics Are Poetry - December 17, 2016
- Guest Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: On Eugene O’Neill’s Love Of Silence - December 15, 2013
- Guest Blog Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: Stuck - February 17, 2013
16 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: Stuck”
This is such a great example, “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It’s so true though, often with writing you get stuck and it’s so confusing to figure out where you need to go next. The point made that resonates with me though is the need to face your fear and anxieties with writing while working out the story that’s hidden somewhere within you.
Sometimes I think accepting the stories that fail is the hardest part. However, as Joy stated, “There’s always risk with writing;” but it’s that risk that can make the process so exciting.
While the unknown road of a story is often terrifying, I also find it exciting and valuable. My writing process is similar to Joy’s – it’s quick, messy, and often fragmented, but I think this leads to a really organic style. It’s easy to get bogged down in the plan of your story and its ultimate meaning, but I find it’s easier to untangle these messes after they are already on the page.
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Being stuck in writing is one of the most difficult entrapment’s I have face yet. I am stuck in my writing as well. I feel like stories are hard to write simply because ‘you are your own worst critic’. If I don’t like what I write, then I’m just going to erase it all and start again.
I love this post. I go through the exact same thing sometimes. However the feeling you get when you power through the “gobbledygook” and get to the worthwhile story is amazing, and that is why writing is so rewarding.
I agree, one line at a time is a great way to get through a story! Write one sentence, and then write the next. I read Ron Carlson’s “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” last year and found his adamant direction to “stay in the room” very helpful in forcing myself not to walk away from the challenge of finding that next line before running away to refill my coffee cup.
Awesome blog post! It is always great to find people with similar experiences. You are right, the internet it terrible help for writer’s block. Great advice though: one line at a time!
“The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay,” Joy Lanzendorfer’s blog post has me thinking about my dream last night. Anyway, about Saunder’s “line-by-line progress through the story,” and EL Doctorow’s “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” my thoughts about these quotes: first, my preferred brand of discomfort is riding the Greyhound bus for more than two days and nights consecutively, secondly, a writer doesn’t always have to the driving—Kerouac’s On the Road, he should’ve given Cassidy more credit! Plus, without a writer’s involvement of adventuring the unknown on the page, then, where is a better place that writers can use fun words like ‘gobbledygook.’ Great blog, great references, and I am now eager to try to ramp up my work too—just created this catch phrase: Ramp It Up! it has the opposite meaning of ‘okay, that’s a wrap for the day.’
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
This post speaks to me on so many levels. I love that she relates the first draft to watching a movie unfold on the paper. It helps to get all the action out without the pressure of making every sentence meaningful. Getting a skeleton out and filling or changing it later. But, I too feel this strain on trying to make the draft form into something clean and enjoyable but not obvious or forceful. Taking the revision process line by line is an easier way to handle the story. Worry only about this one sentence, then the next, then the next and not the project as a whole. Great post!
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A wise man who’d rather go unquoted said “Show me a writer writing on a computer connected to the internet, I’ll show you a writer who’s not writing.” unplug
I have reached the point in one of my stories where I just cannot figure out what comes next, it’s frustrating and I am about ready to give up. However, after reading your post, I’m going to try and finish, even if it’s not as good as I hoped it would be, at least it will be done!
P.s. The quote by EL Doctorow is the best description of the writing process I think I have ever heard.
I like that you said that you were confused because if you didn’t know what to write about as the WRITER, then who would know? Sometimes, however, I think we can draw inspiration from our past readers, and the experiences we have in our lives. Whenever I hit a wall, I incorporate a life experience, and I am able to continue writing.
Great piece of advice, Megan. One can never go wrong with a past personal experience.
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