Haverhill, MA, 2008, www.carolineallen.com
I am working with a writing client, a new novelist, who recently took a vacation to a tropical island with her husband and two children. Her laptop was too heavy, so she decided not to take it. Besides, she thought, I can use my husband’s when he’s not working.
With kids on vacation, writing is all about grabbing unexpected openings to work. Those unexpected openings came, and because her husband was so busy, she was never able to use his laptop. She was never able to write. (She could have used pencil and paper, but for many novelists, it’s all about opening the existing document and losing themselves in it, not about scratching ideas onto a legal pad.)
At any rate, this forced time off from writing was the BEST POSSIBLE thing that could have happened to her writing process. She sat and watched her girls play in the lapping blue ocean. I imagine she watched the wind, the trees, the birds.
Something strange and wonderful happened in her forced sabbatical. Her mind opened up. All of these plot ideas came to her, big ideas that deepened and sharpened the edges of her novel. Ideas that changed the shape of future chapters. When she came back and we had our session, I was frankly shocked by how far she’d leapt forward in her understanding of her novel specifically and novel writing in general.
Sometimes, the most important part of writing is NOT WRITING. You can get caught up in the language and the grammar and the technicalities, when all the soul wants to do is float about, meander, hum a few different tunes. The soul wants to play…and we must give it time to play. That pondering is as much a part of being a real writer as the writing itself.
I was an international newsroom journalist for years in London and Tokyo. When I moved to Seattle, and worked for the Seattle P-I, I unfortunately contracted repetitive strain injury. For several months, I could not use my hands to do any typing or writing whatsoever. It was a painful time, but one that changed my writing life forever.
I stared out the window at the way the light played on the leaves. I watched the sky change every evening, deepening into crimson hue. I even stared at the cracks in the ceiling. I studied fixtures in my old apartment in deep detail, the way the glass doorknob caught the light, the ceiling light’s ornate casings. I questioned: “Am I a writer if I cannot use my hands?”
The conclusion I came to: “In my soul, I am a writer. So, hands or no, I will always be a writer.” I got voice software and trained myself on it. (The software itself dramatically shifted my narrative and dialogue. It became much more free flowing, much more my voice…)
The best possible left turn happened while I was unable to write. It did not happen on a conscious level; it was only much later that I understood what had happened. I went fully from journalism to fiction. I realized on some level my soul wanted to be fully and deeply expressed in my writing. The joy of my soul. The colors in it. As a journalist, it was all about reporting pain and trauma and the emotionally disconnected world of politics. I was trained as a classical journalist, which meant I was taught to completely keep myself out of what I wrote, in fact we were taught to pride ourselves on being an observer. We fooled ourselves into believing we were unbiased, clean, clear, honest. We kidded ourself that we were not affecting the situation by observing it. I was taught to lie to myself and tell myself that my white, educated, American mindset was unbiased, and did not affect truth as I saw it.
I realized everyone is subjective as I meandered around my days. If we’re subjective, let’s own that subjectiveness. I wanted to dive into the flavor of my subjectivity.
The poetry of the soul wanted expression in the writing. I’d already been writing fiction for several years when I got repetitive strain injury, but still my soul wasn’t fully engaged with what my hands were doing. There was a disconnect. Only several painful months with nothing to do helped me realize this, helped me flower, brought me fully to my soul’s path.
I know many people who have had sudden breaks happen in their lives and careers, many many people. All of these breaks led the person to a new life, a greater life than the one before. We’re taught by society to be one way, and we live that way for years, until the soul says: OK, that’s enough. My turn. BOOM.
Other writers I work with come up against a great need to put their memoir or essay aside for several weeks, if not months. A writer finished a rough draft of her memoir. Amidst dramatic changes in her life (that’s another consequence of writing the truth, it seems to stir things up, shift them, release old stuff, while the new comes barrelling toward you), she just could not begin the revision process for approximately three months. She tried, but couldn’t. It just needed a rest, so the soul could have some pondering time.
Another client has finished an essay and knows she must put it away for weeks before she can do the final soulful touches. Stephen King talks about the necessity of such breaks from writing projects in his book, On Writing.
However the break comes that allows this soul meandering, bless it. Honor it. Love it. When you’re on your deathbed, those times will be the ones you bless, those times when the soul wasn’t harnessed, hog-tied, gagged and put in a closet until you had more time.