Tag Archives: writer problems

Metaphor Monday: Imaginary Floods


Metaphor Monday is back on Monday — the planets must be in alignment!

Our washing machine crapped out this weekend.

Well, it seemed like it had crapped out.

One way or another, it looked like it had crapped out, and it gave us a scare for a good hour or so.

It was Sunday, and Sundays are laundry days in our house. So, after the morning shopping run was done and the kids were down for quiet time (they don’t take naps anymore, but we’ve convinced them — mostly — that quiet time is a thing, and thank goodness for it), we took some laundry downstairs, cranked up the machine, and sat back to relax for an episode of Stranger Things. (Sidenote: Now that Stranger Things is over again, what do I do with my life??)

About an hour later, I realized that the washer was still running. Not only was it still running, but there was still water running through the supply lines. You know, that low rush in the walls that’s completely inaudible until it happens when it shouldn’t? Having experienced three pipe blow-outs in our old house, this is a sound that immediately gives me the cold sweats.

So the water is hissing away in the walls, and in the quiet after the episode, suddenly, I hear it. Sweat breaks out all over. I run downstairs expecting to find the entire basement under a couple inches of standing water — but, no. Weird, but welcome. I look at the washer. The dial hasn’t advanced from where I started it an hour ago. Weird. I open the lid. Water is pouring into the machine. Weirder still. I turn off the machine. Water stops. Turn it back on. Water pours. At this rate, it should have flooded long ago, but it hasn’t. I turn the dial to the end of the cycle. The machine spins up, leaves the clothes damp as expected, and all is still.

I start the machine again. It’s an older unit and has some gremlins (occasionally shuts off for no discernible reason, and every few months, like a 99% trained housecat, will leave a gross little puddle in the laundry room), so maybe it just needed a good solid reboot. No dice. The water runs and runs and the cycle won’t advance.

What I’ve learned in my near-decade (help!) of home ownership is that when appliances or plumbing break down, the solution is either really simple or really expensive with not much middle ground, with a decided tendency towards really expensive. So the cold sweat breaks out again. (I was still sweaty. You’re welcome.) I do what any savvy, 21st-century thirty-something homeowner would do and fire up youtube. Within minutes I have twenty browser tabs open describing how to open up my washing machine, how to rewire it, how to drain it, how to rebuild it out of toothpicks, and a third round of cold sweat is starting up (by now I should really have changed my shirt, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that my shirts are in the laundry that is not getting washed). It’s all very involved, very detailed, very time-consuming, and very daunting.

I dive in anyway, take the cover off the machine and expose a nest of wires and motors and dials and tubes. Not much of it looks like what I saw in the videos or the diagrams, which isn’t that big a deal but it starts the panic. I was looking at the wrong video; maybe I’ve got the wrong problem. Maybe this is way out of my league. Maybe I’m making things worse by even tinkering with the machine.

The Howler Monkey of Doubt starts in. You don’t know what you’re doing. Give up. Suck it up and get ready to pay a repair technician. Also, forget about getting laundry done tonight, and start panicking over what your kids are going to wear to school tomorrow. And what you’re going to wear, for that matter. How many days can you last? How much is it gonna cost to get it fixed?  Do you even have a single pair of clean underwear right now? All I want to do is lay down in bed, pull the covers up over my eyelids, and sleep until the problem fixes itself, which is to say, for EVER.

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How I envision every plumbing project I ever undertake

I sit for ten minutes, doing nothing. Then I return to the problem. I refine my google searches. I think about what the real problem is. I search some more. Within about five more minutes, I’ve got a likely solution that doesn’t even require any tools. The cold sweat is back. It can’t be this simple, can it?

Actually, it can.

I lift the drain hose from its pipe. There’s a wicked gurgling, whooshing sound — I half expect water to explode out of the walls and realize my nightmares — but that’s it. The drain hose was a bit too deep in the pipe, the water level got a titch too high, and a siphon was created — whenever water was poured into the machine, the siphon pulled it right out through the drain. The machine could never get to the proper amount of water, so it could never start its cycle. But there was nothing mechanically wrong with it, so it didn’t shut itself down. Likewise, the drain was functioning properly, so it never overflowed. The very next minute, I restart the machine, watch it fill up with water — and then kick over to the wash cycle.

Problem solved.

Phew. That was a lot to tell. So what’s the metaphor?

There are two, actually. One for me and one for the machine.

Let’s start with the machine. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, as I pointed out before — just a simple user error that caused it to tall into an actually rather interesting physics loop (it’s called “siphoning,” and it works exactly like extracting gas from your car’s tank). Thing is, the user error that caused the physics problem happened several months ago and the problem never happened until now. Which means that I laid the groundwork for this little headache months ago and spent the intervening time dancing on the edge of disaster, never even knowing what might happen. Like an aneurysm in the brain, the drain pipe in the wall was just hanging there, waiting to form a seal and blow up my Sunday. Maybe the machine getting jostled as I loaded the clothes into it caused it to make that seal; maybe the spin cycle on the machine’s last run knocked it over the edge. There’s no telling, except that whatever it was could have gone wrong at any time.

If that ain’t a perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Everything, all the time, is hanging by a thread, and everybody is running around with multiple pairs of scissors in their hands. Eventually, one way or another, that thread is gonna get cut, and your washing machine is gonna run for a few hours and (at best) run up your water bill or (at worst) flood your basement.

Which brings me to the human element. What I really wanted to do when the washer broke down was hide from the problem. Think about literally anything else. Hope it would work itself out, or (when that didn’t work) just hire somebody to come in and deal with it. But after taking a few minutes to get my head together and assess the problem like a person who has a brain, I was able to not only discern that the problem wasn’t all that bad, but to fix it myself with almost no strain.

Which is to say that sometimes our problems are not all we make them out to be. Sometimes that crippling writer’s block you’re suffering isn’t the end of your writing career, but just a sign that you need to not focus on that particular character in that particular chapter right this second. Just like my particular appliance issue called for a little less soldering iron and voltmeter, a little more flashlight and paper towel, sometimes the writing life is a little less throw-the-laptop-and-all-you’ve-ever-created-into-the-dumpster-and-set-it-ablaze and a little more maybe-just-go-write-a-vignette-with-talking-cats-holding-office-jobs.

In other words, just go work on something else for a while and let it open your brain up.

Now excuse me while I go draft a scene for my new series. It’s basically Milo & Otis meets The Office.

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Metaphor Monday: The Fly


No, not the 80’s Jeff Goldblum flick, although I could certainly write at length about that one. Talk about scaring the hell out of a kid. I could never look at donuts the same way.

Today’s thought is much more pedestrian than all that, though hardly pedestrian! (Because flies, right? They fly!) Because Mother Nature is apparently just as upside-down and backwards as our wayward country these days, the seasons have reversed themselves and it’s pushing 80 in November for about the third day in a row. Some plants in the yard seem to be blooming again, thinking that Spring has sprung anew, while others haven’t yet finished decomposing from last week’s cold snap. And the bugs are back. Snapped out of hibernation or their winter larval stage or wherever the hell bugs go during the COLD TIMES.

Specifically, a fly flew (it’s hard to communicate how much internal strife I suffered writing such a banal obviosity as “the fly flew”, but there’s not really a better or simpler way to say it, and yeah, obviosity is probably not a word that Merriam or Webster would agree with, but it fits the flavor of the moment for me) into the house a few days ago, and it shows no signs of leaving. It shows interest in leaving, make no mistake. It hurls itself against every window pane, every crook and seam leading to the outdoors that it can find with its millions of tiny fly eyes (that’s flies, right? Millions of eyes? Or did I somehow splice Lovecraft into my memories of intro Biology?). Every apparent egress, that is, this fly bashes up against, again and again, with that strange but unmistakable sound. (zzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzRT zzzzRT zzzRT). Every exit, that is, except whichever one it exploited to get inside.

Usually we don’t have to think much about flies. We have four cats in the house, after all, and there’s always at least one of them in a sporting mood, so on the odd chance that a critter, bugger, or somesuch finds its way inside, it doesn’t tend to last very long. But the cats, it seems, have fallen into a faux-winter doldrums themselves, and none of them are interested in bringing down this interloper.

So it buzzes around the house. Buzzing around my head while I fix breakfast. Buzzing just behind the couch while we watch TV. Buzzing under my pillow while I sleep. Buzzing in my brain while I dream. The kind of constant buzzing that you can ignore until the little guy in your brain pipes up, “hey, you’ve been ignoring that fly for a while, and it’s still buzzing around. Don’t flies sleep? Is this, like, the Superman of flies? The SuperFly?” And then you start to obsess. Well, maybe you don’t. I do. Now, when I go home, I’m listening for the little bastard to start buzzing so I can open a door or window for him, or take a swing at him, or throw a cat at him, or SOMETHING to make the buzzing stop.

Of course, the fly doesn’t care about my aversion to his buzzing (unless it’s one of those government-controlled feeding-on-psychic-discord spy-flies, which you know are a thing). And it certainly doesn’t care about actually leaving the house anymore, that’s plain. What it cares about now are the simple things in life. Buzzing at me right after I’ve just sat down and don’t want to get up and chase it around the house. Flying really close to my ear and darting away before I can smack it. Lighting on my sock-clad foot just out of swatting range and just sitting there for a really, really long time. Clattering away in a window on the far side of the room and flitting away to tango with the ceiling fan when I try to open said window.

I haven’t dealt with the fly directly yet — by which I mean, putting on a fire-proof jumpsuit and pursuing it through the house with a lighter and a can of hair spray — because it hasn’t been important enough to me to do so, yet. Taking actual time out of my day is not a thing I’ve yet allowed this fly to move me to do. Just not worth the time.

Yet here I sit, writing about the fly when I could be writing about something more productive.

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Which is where the fly becomes a metaphor. (Did you forget it was metaphor Monday? I forgive you, it’s Tuesday after all.)

The fly is that little idea that gets into your head. You know the one. The one that just sort of nags at the back of your brain while you’re thinking about other stuff, or absentmindedly paying your bills, or wondering what to have for dinner. You distantly hear it banging away at your subconscious, but you don’t want to have to actually deal with it. Maybe the cats will get to it and I won’t have to, you perhaps think. Or — survival of the fittest and all — it found its way in here, so it can find its own way out. Or it’ll eventually starve or cook itself to death in a window: problem solved.

And most of the time? It usually will work itself out. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the fly gets stuck in the house and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you hunt it down and squash it (or set it on fire, idk how you deal with flies). Sometimes that idea gets into your head and it won’t shut up and it won’t go away until you actually sit down and think about it, hear what it has to say, and deal with the reality that you’re stuck with this thing.

Sometimes that idea is a brand new story that you’ve been secretly dying to tell, and you just didn’t know it. Sometimes it’s a hard truth you’ve been denying yourself. Sometimes it’s that perfect comeback that you could never come up with in the moment (the jerk store called…).

Whatever it is, if it’s stuck in your head and it won’t go away and won’t let you focus on what you’re trying to focus on, there may just be a reason for that, and maybe you need to stop ignoring that little buzz and see what it has to say.

Because something’s been bugging me (I’m sorry). My current project, which is to say, the edit that I started almost a full year ago, is in the ditch. Has been for a while. Maybe it’s the summer move, maybe it’s just lost some of its luster, but it’s only barely creeping along if anything, and I can’t even make myself want to work on it. Muscling through isn’t working, putting my head down and grinding it out ain’t gonna do it. Not right now. The fly in my head is that this isn’t the right project for me right now. I’ve been ignoring that thought and hoping it’ll go away, but it’s clearly going nowhere, so it’s time to face facts.

Maybe I’ll come back to this project. Maybe I won’t. I hear authors of all stripes do this all the time, but it feels like a knife in the gut. The better part of a year to draft it, and over six months again trying to edit it… the sheer amount of time wasted is soul-crushing.

But as the great Kenny Rogers once said, you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

And right now, it feels like time to fold this one, open the windows, and let this house air out a little bit.

 


Metaphor Monday (Kind of): Your Eyes Are Idiots


Take a look at this:

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Okay, so you’ve probably seen that before, but pretend that you haven’t. Or step into your time machine and visit the thoughts and feelings and emotional earthquakes that your younger self experienced upon seeing it for the first time.

Are you there? Good.

You glance at that picture, and immediately you see something.

(Physiologically, your brain is doing just another of the million miracles it will do in any given day, but this is one you can be a little more conscious of. It interprets the lines. The brightnesses. The shadows. It forms these things into shapes and patterns. Then it goes and categorizes those shapes and patterns and tells you you are seeing –)

Bam. A young lady, in a mink coat and choker, her face turned demurely away from you.

Or —

Bam. An old, homely woman, with craggy nose and chin, swaddled in furs, looking forlornly down and to the front.

Either way, the moment you looked at it, you saw either the one image or the other. The A, or the B. And your brain can’t process them both at the same time. So when you see the young lady in (A), you’re locked in to that, and when you see the old crone in (B), you’re locked in to that. And, probably, upon first viewing this illusion (or, as Neil de Grasse Tyson calls it, a “brain failure”), you couldn’t even conceive of the other possibility. “You don’t see the old woman?” “No, are you kidding?”

But then, if you look at it long enough — oh, the choker is a mouth, now, and the little dot of the young lady’s ear is the old woman’s eye — then all of a sudden, the picture snaps from one reality to the other and the crone is all you see.

You can go back and forth on whether the girl in the picture is young or old, but you can’t see them both at the same time. It’s one or the other. X perspective gives Y result. Schroedinger’s cat could be dead or alive before you open the box, but once you open it, the cat is either very much alive or very much not.

That’s the funny thing about our brains, though; the image is neither that of a young lady or an old crone. The image is just a collection of lines and different areas of black and white. It’s merely the suggestion of one form or another (or perhaps, of many forms), and it is only in the eye of the viewer that the image takes on any meaning at all.

Which brings me to this week’s metaphor. (Which, if current trends continue, should just become “the weekly metaphor” and not the “Monday metaphor”, but that’s a digression for another non-Monday.)

For the past year and a half or so (actually, I should probably go back and look to make sure, but going back and looking to clarify is a thing that, today, right now, I will decidedly not be doing, because the answer would almost certainly destroy me emotionally), I’ve been working on this story.

It’s a good story. Or at least, it felt at its inception and on a conceptual level like a good story. But in the editing process — which is dragging now into the 6 month period, and given my progress (or lack thereof), is likely to go on for quite a good while longer — the story is failing. Or flailing. Probably a little of both. I feel like I have all the right pieces, arranged in the right way, working toward the right goal — but the outcome is not what I wanted. Worse than not what I wanted, it’s not even functioning the way I intended. I asked for a picture of an aristocratic lady, and I got a hag instead.

To clarify this a little, I set out to write a “Voyage and Return” variant of the seven core stories. Add in a little “Overcoming the Monster” and it’s on its way. But the more I edit, the more I chip away at this block of wood in front of me, the more it seems like the “Voyage and Return” story is the part that’s falling flat. The much more powerful (and more interesting — at least to me) story is the secondary one, the Monster.

Problem is, since I thought I was writing a V&R, I bent most of my energies and spent most of my words on that channel. On that perspective. On the cat being alive when we open the box.

But I think the cat is dead. I think it is very, very dead.

(Have I mixed my metaphors enough for a Monday? {Sorry, a Tuesday.})

All of a sudden, though, I realized that the picture I’m looking at doesn’t have to be the picture I thought I was drawing. I thought I was drawing the young lady, but it turns out I was drawing the hag all along — and as it turns out, I think I like the hag better.

In short, I think the story is much more about the Monster than it is about the Voyage, possibly so much so that the Voyage (and the 40% of the novel that’s directly concerned with it, to say nothing of the 70% that is at least tangentially concerned with it) is superfluous. Which is troubling. And I’m sitting here pondering all the words I’ve written, and all the fargoes I’ve sunk into the story, and I’m asking myself:

Do I scrap 50% of the novel and start over?

Do I trunk the entire project and move on to something that won’t vex me so much? (Although that’s its own Schroedinger’s Cat, innit?)

Do I wait a few days for the feeling, like an unexpected kidney stone, to pass?

One way or another, this crappy rabbit sure isn’t helping anything.

DuckRabbit

 


Riding The Wave


We’re back from a week’s vacation. Back from a week of beaches and relaxation and not thinking about work at all and HA HA no, we were on vacation with our kids naturally, so it was pretty much life as usual: waking up before the sun, stretching out every activity by about 50% to allow for tantrums and foot-dragging and lost shoes / stuffed animals / underwear, and remember when I said that thing about relaxing? There’s no such thing as relaxing when your kids are five and three and will fight about literally anything if given ten seconds of opportunity.

So: didn’t get as much opportunity to write as I’d hoped.

But on the night when we were uncertain whether the storm of the decade was coming through, my wife and I did sneak down to the ocean to ride some (for the gulf) killer waves. Actually, to be clear, my wife had the good sense to not try riding the waves, but as good sense is rarely one of my dominant characteristics, I jumped in with both feet, and often my head.

Surfing (okay, fine, boogie-boarding because I’m not that coordinated or cool) is a great way for a thirty-something guy to get thoroughly humiliated and smacked around in return for a few sparks of short-lived adrenaline.

But I realized — as I was on vacation, hiding from responsibilities and from my craft of choice — it’s also a pretty good parallel for writing.

To wit: here’s how surfing works. You grab your board and you head out into turbulent waters, fighting the current and the crashing waves to get yourself out a decent distance from shore, where the waves are fewer and farther between but bigger, more powerful. There, you wait until just the right one comes along, and then — with every ounce of strength and dexterity you can muster, you abandon your fingernail grip on safety and attempt to ride that thing all the way back to the shore.

Fun, but also pointless and much more likely to leave you smashed against the ocean floor, unsure which way is up, filling your lungs with ocean water than to deposit you safely on the shore, stepping casually off your board as if the thing you just accomplished were really no big deal as the ocean breeze ruffles your sun-kissed hair.

Which is basically writing. Let’s be honest: life would be easier if you just didn’t. The world doesn’t want you to write, like the world doesn’t want you to surf. Those waves are monstrous, relentlessly pounding you back to shore, which is really where you should be hanging out: grinding out your daily routine, seeing to your land-lubberly responsibilities (i.e. your job), sticking to the land you evolved to walk upon and not the sea which your evolutionary ancestors abandoned.

Every wall of water that breaks upon you is shoving you back toward land. The sea doesn’t want you there — it knows you don’t belong. Just like the writer trying to make time for himself when he has family and job and mortgage payments to contend with. That’s where you and your energy belong, not splashing around in the ocean that’s just going to leave you cold and bruised and waterlogged. But you fight your way out anyway, whether you’re chasing a thrill or an escape or because somewhere deep in your primeval brain you feel like you do belong out there.

Then you wait. The shore — and the safety and normalcy it represents — is distant. All around you break waves that you allow to pass by for one reason or another: Not big enough, not breaking at the right time, too fierce. The waves are the writer’s ideas: plentiful and without end, but mostly useless to the writer, for many of the same reasons: too big in scope for the author to tackle, too small to really hold his attention, or interesting but just not one he’s feeling right now. Most of them roll right by.

But eventually, you see the one. It’s just right, this wave, big enough to give you a thrill but also just big enough to scare you a little. (It’s the idea that frightens you a bit that will keep you writing.) So you jump on it, and this, too, is a struggle — because in the build-up to the wave, the current changes. The ocean draws the water back to itself to gather strength for the new wave, and it pulls you out to sea with it. But you find yourself atop it nonetheless, and then everything changes. Now you’re flying along at the speed of creativity, as this madcap idea explodes and crashes all around you in an erupting chaos of foam and spray — the castoffs of a story being woven from nothing.

And who knows? Maybe the wave turns on you — it breaks over your head and tumbles you end-over-end. It slams you into the sand and the ocean rushes into your mouth and nose and ears and you feel like you might as well be a mile underwater for all you can see and feel. This is where the idea leaves you and the inspiration rushes right out leaving you lost and adrift and doubting every decision that brought you to this point, reconsidering an easier life, perhaps as an accountant.

Or maybe you ride it all the way home, bumping gently onto the sand as you stick a perfect landing: the ending writes itself, the conflicts wrap themselves up neatly, and you step off the board, nary a hair out of place.

Either way, you find yourself back on land again — beaten and half-drowned or charged up and riding high — but not quite satisfied either way. Nobody heads out to ride just one wave, do they? There’s an infinity of stories out there waiting to be told, an interminable ocean of waves waiting to be ridden.

Grab your board.

Or, y’know. Your pen. Or keyboard. Or whatever.


Scrub Up and Slice In


The revision process for a novel has a series of steps associated with it, much like the stages of grief.

First, you’re kind of enchanted with this thing you wrote, and you spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back: hey look at that neat character I wrote back then, boy that twist was kind of clever, and wow this might not actually be that bad to edit. (See also: my posts from about six weeks ago when I started the current edit.)

Then you begin to hate the thing you wrote, because the more flaws you come across, the more glaring they become and the more likely you are to see more flaws. A snowball rolling downhill, collecting more snow and branches and dead moose until it flattens a town.

Then, resignation: the thing is what it is, and no amount of unicorn-chasing denial or grizzly-bear-wrestling self-hate is going to change it, so with steely resolve, you go to work on it. Narrative Surgery. With no training, no qualifications, and no idea what you’re even supposed to be doing, you scrub up and dive in.

The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected. There is no such thing as a “minor correction.” The hip-bone is connected to the leg-bone, but in this metaphor, it’s also connected to the patellar tendon, the lower intestines, one and a half lungs and the eye on the non-heart side (which — surprise! — is not the side you thought it was).

You go to make your incision, to correct that one little nagging issue in the third chapter, and blood starts leaking out of the character resolution in chapter eighteen. You try to tamp that down with a little narrative pressure, but that causes a backup in the side conflict while also necessitating the introduction of brand-new tissue in the opening chapters. You set to work rectifying all this, but because you also have a full-time job and for god’s sake you’re only human, your rectifications themselves are flawed and not as focused as they maybe should be because oh my god there’s inkblood everywhere.

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Did I drop my keys in there? I think I dropped my keys in there.

Now you’ve got internal bleeding and contusions popping up under the skin all over the place, and you’re not actually any closer to fixing the problem you set out to fix in the first place, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole with the fallout from your “fixes.” Worse still, you’re starting to see that the big problem you ignored in the first draft — the one you just stuck a post-it note to your future self on that read YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE, GOOD LUCK (an actual comment I left for myself around the 1/3 mark of this particular draft) — has metastasized out of control. A broken bone repaired by interweaving itself with all the surrounding tissue. The hive in Aliens that has swollen and spilled over, and now threatens to consume the entire ship. Every blood vessel, every nerve ending, every plot line, every narrative thread seems to run through this one spot, this one tangle of viscera and scar tissue.

And you don’t want to do it. To go to work on this thing will throw the entire project into limbo. The bleeding will be massive, the repair work intensive, the recovery extensive. But that angry little knot, interspersing its evil tentacles through the heart and every extremity of your story, pulses defiantly. Taunting you. And that’s when you realize that you do want to do it, that despite the trauma and triage, despite the emotional and psychological fallout that will surely result, this thing can be saved. It can be made clean again.

So you slice into it.

And as the first gout of narrative blood stain your scrubs, you glance just a little bit further down the chest cavity… and you see another tumor.

Ahem.

So, you know. The edit’s going fine … just fine.

*screams internally*

*dies inside*

*animates self with a straight shot of caffeine to the pleasure center and sheer force of will*

*zombie self continues writing*

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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