The Empty Stage

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me well that I write under what some consider ridiculous circumstances.  I’ve talked about this some in my Mommy Writer posts.  I write while my toddler runs around the living room.  I write while she stands, ever by my chair, saying “up.”  I write with her on my lap trying with all her toddler might not to reach for the ever tempting keyboard, because she knows if she does I will put her down.   I write  while my husband plays video games.  I write while he plays whatever music he wants.  I write while friends are over.  I write while on vacation to relatives’ houses.  I write, even in the dreaded silence that suddenly feels very distracting after all that chaos.

It’s because I do all those things that I write at all.

Sometimes the writing goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.  And until recently, I thought that was largely outside my control.  I can control whether or not I sit down to write, I told myself.  I can control whether or not I try.  But I can’t control whether this is a good day or a bad day, writing wise, because some days things just go, and some days everything is stop.

And then I discovered this thing.  This wonderful thing.

My writing goes well in direct proportion to how much I have thought about what I was going to write while I was not writing.  

For a while there I had gotten compartmentalized with my writing.  In the first few weeks of a new draft, I would write all the scenes I had been daydreaming about.  And then I would go back and fill in the gaps.  This part would move ever so slowly, because I had already written everything I was thinking about while not writing.  I did a lot of putting my butt in the chair, but I was arriving unprepared.  When I showed up for work, I was like a director with an empty stage.  It’s time for the performance, and I’m still casting about, searching for the right actor for the part, making up the blocking, changing the script.  It should have been obvious why so many of those days were bad days.

A few months ago I sensed this pattern, and I started doing some enforced daydreaming.  Because of the aforementioned toddler, I have plenty of time where my hands are busy but my brain is not.  So during this time, I started telling myself that I was absolutely required to think about whatever that next scene was, no matter how straightforward.

Suddenly I started having a lot more good days.  I started getting a lot more done in a lot less keyboard time.  And, more than that, what I was writing started coming out better.

I discovered that it is simply boring to daydream about flat characters.  So to spare myself the boredom, I had to round them out.  I had to add more relationships to every scene, no matter how mundane, just to keep myself interested.  I had to stretch the tensions throughout the book just so my mind would have something to chew on.  I couldn’t afford to wait for myself to be bored.  Making myself think was also part of the work. I discovered if I made myself think about what I was going to write, I also had to figure out how to stop boring myself.  I started spending lots and lots of time asking myself, “how else could this happen?” or “how else could the characters react,” or “what would happen if they talked about this, instead of keeping it to themselves?”  And suddenly I was writing not only more scenes, but better ones.

Maybe this has improved the overall quality of my work, and maybe not.  I always got around to developing scenes eventually before, so I don’t know if this discovery will matter much from a reader’s point of view.  But for me, it was everything.  It gave me something tangible that I could control about a job where not many things work that way.

So now I think, and then I write.  And when the writing goes badly, I point a finger at myself and ask why I didn’t think about this scene before I came to it.  And then I pick up the whining toddler, carry her around the house as is always her most desperate desire, and think some more.  When I’m making sure to do lots of thinking away from the keyboard, scenes click together.  I work out answers.  I figure it out.  Some say your subconscious will do this for you if you just let yourself get bored, or if you spend time thinking about other things.  Mine doesn’t.  The problems are always waiting for me there at the keyboard, unless I make a conscious decision to solve them when I’m not sitting there.

Fortunately, my life is full of times when I can think but not type.  So I think, and I daydream, and I work things out.

And then I write.