Zen and the Art of Shut Up and Write

Gawd, it’s been a rough week for my writing. Hard to find the time, hard to find the motivation, hard to even read what I’ve written.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt was exceptionally loud in my ears this morning, and I think he must have eaten a ton of garlic bread last night, because his breath was AWFUL, and he was not in the least apologetic about it. At any rate, during my tuning-up phase this morning, I went back and re-read the last few pages, as is my wont, and realized that there is a problem. It’s not going anywhere.

Not only is it not going anywhere, but it’s been failing to go anywhere for the last several pages. It’s the literary equivalent of the car having jumped the guardrail and propped itself at a crazy angle on a rock: the wheels are spinning like mad, all the parts are still more or less working, but there is no traction, there’s no movement. A serious-asgard “gumption trap,” to quote Robert Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

And how do you deal with a gumption trap? …Truth be told, it’s been too long since I’ve read that book to remember exactly (dondraper it). But I THINK the answer is simply to give it a little breathing room, re-evaluate your goals and your perception of the problem, and then return to the problem refreshed and unflustered. A nice trick, if you can pull it off. The problems he talks about in that book are problems like screws with the heads rounded off and motorcycles broken down in the wilderness with no hope of rescue in sight, but they’re applicable to all of life (in that funny way that Zen is) which means they apply to writing. ZatAoMM is in that way a fantastic book about life while not actually telling you much about Motorcycle Maintenance particularly. A good read if a bit dense here and there.

So. I left it undisturbed and unthought-of for the whole morning, which was difficult — usually I like to let my ideas marinate in between answering questions about Macbeth, jotting down a thought here and there, but today I shut it down and didn’t think of it again until after lunch. Then, before I allowed myself to write a word, a re-evaluation of the story and of the present problem. I sat. I thought. And then, like stepping out of a dark movie theater into the bright light of day (yeah, I only see movies during the day anymore, TODDLER LIFE), it all became maddeningly clear.

The character’s problems are not the problems I thought they were. His problems are internal. Sure, there are external stressors, external forces. But the problem is (as with any other good story) one that has to be solved on the inside. Truth be told, my story wasn’t begging for a solution to the problem, I think it just needed an acknowledgment of the problem. Problem acknowledged, I was able to return to form and punch out twelve hundred words in just a touch over thirty minutes, which is a breakneck pace for me when drafting on the novel.

Things learned:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize. My story had drifted off course a little bit. Now it’s squarely back on heading. Like Luke in Star Wars, I needed to keep my targeting computer on. No wait, he had the Force. I don’t. I have my unfocused, slobbering Id-Writer snarling at my heels. I’ll take the targeting computer and a cattle prod, thanks.

2. It’s not so bad it can’t be fixed. Today’s onset of the Howler Monkey was one of the worst yet — I really thought I’d written myself into a corner AND a brick wall at the same time. I thought the story was horribly derailed and entrenched and I was going to have to backtrack to fix it. But after just a little bit of consideration, I can see that’s not the case at all. There are things to fix, there are some moving parts which can be rejiggered. But the story itself is hale, hearty, and sound. A little trip and stumble is no reason to put the thing down. This thing is steel-reinforced like a tank and shock-absorbent like Jello. Story is a living thing and it can adapt and heal like a living thing. And Future Me is the doctor that will straighten it all out. (God help you, Future Me.)

3. Trust in the characters. I’ve said this before, but funny things can happen when you step back and allow the characters a bit of leeway to stretch their legs and carry the story a little bit. My hero’s love interest (who did not even exist when I first imagined the story) has proved to be a righteous force when it comes to righting the ship and keeping the story on the rails. I’m starting to wonder if the story could even stand up in book form without her. I don’t think it could.

So, tribulations of the week aside, I’m still on schedule — in fact a bit ahead of schedule — as I head on to the weekend. I should have another Flash Fiction story posted this weekend, for which the ideas are already percolating.

I’ll close out with a favorite passage from today. This one requires a little context: the characters have just discovered that they’re not real people — in fact they’re creations in the author’s mind as he sets out to write a new twist on Romeo and Juliet. This is, of course, not information he was necessarily planning to share with them.



“What story?” Julia’s big, pretty eyes were innocent, hopeful.
Andy took a deep breath and found that he couldn’t look at them. “Romeo and Juliet.”
Everybody grew suddenly very uneasy and still, except for Danny, who whooped in excitement, tossing his hat in the air. “Hey! Yeah! That’s awesome!” Anthony tried to calm him with a look, but seeing as they had no affinity for silent communication, Danny kept right on. “Star-crossed lovers, right? I read this in ninth grade. Romance. Heck, it’s right there: Stars? Love? Hear that, bro? Things are gonna work out!”



It’s great fun writing a character who’s so pure and sweet and oblivious. It’s like writing my dog into the story, except that Danny has never tried to kill me by running under my feet. Beyond that, though — soulmates.

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