In his excellent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee at one point compares writing to being sequestered in jail by your own story: “You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.”
Or, as my student Christola puts it: “I’m writing at writing.”
They’re both describing a distressing place many writers end up in at one time or another. You’re not so much stuck as you’re lost. You type and type but you don’t get anywhere. You cannot see your way forward.
If you find yourself in that cell, don’t despair. Here’s a few steps you can try:
First, let your story rest. Put it away, and give your befuddled brain a break. Leave it alone as long as you can—a day or two if you’re on deadline; weeks if you’re not. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it should be “safely shut away, aging and (one hopes) mellowing [until] it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can barely remember stopping.”
Next, write out—by hand, I’m not kidding, use pen and paper—a short list of things you want for this story. Avoid superlatives here, both grandiose (“Greatest screenplay about a meerkat ever,”) and self-flagellating, (“Nice plot, loser”).
Make this like a Saturday morning errands list, or if it works better for you, write it out as if it were an email to your best friend. Remember Grandma’s story about meeting Buffalo Bill, or Eat more eggs.
Now that you have a guide with your hopes and goals clearly spelled out, go ahead and read your story. When something resonates with you, highlight it or underline it. Most likely, those moments are taking you closer to your hopes and goals. When you dive back in, build on them.
Keep an eye out for what’s missing, too. Where does your aim completely miss your target? Where have you missed ripe opportunities to introduce scenes or sentences that work in those hopes and goals in sooner?
Where is the first resonant line? And where is the first missed opportunity? How can you build a bridge between them? Start there.
Think of it as a rescue and recovery operation—decide what’s most important, look for the solid ground and the critical flaws. And get to work.
Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty