Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Ten: Be the sensitive type

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A while back, I was writing a scene in which my protagonist is given a choice. I made that choice for her, assuming I knew best. I wrote along my merry way, into the next chapter, la-la-laaaa…

The story slowed. My writing slowed. I found myself typing with two fingers instead of ten, sitting back in my chair with a scowl on my face.

I’d made the wrong choice and that wrong choice leeched the energy from the story.

Back when I first started writing, I would have done one of two things:

  1. Forced the story forward like a crazy driver whipping a horse, not caring that it is dying on its feet, or
  2. Decided the idea behind the story wasn’t strong enough and stopped writing it altogether.

Now I know better.

Now I know the energy of any story can be killed by my agenda. My outline. My ideas. My knowledge. My morals. My point.

I also know that any story idea strong enough to get me to sit and write is strong enough to propel itself to completion.

I’ve learned I must be sensitive to the energy of the story. To what the story wants. I need to listen and feel and intuit as I write. Sometimes this means slowing down. Sometimes it means sitting and waiting. Sometimes this means getting up from my chair and scrubbing the bathtub.

In my experience, stories are like fireflies. They buzz around, all fascinating and beautiful, going this way and that. I have a choice: I can trap them in a jar or I can leave them free and watch them shine. If I trap them in a jar, they won’t buzz and they won’t fly. Eventually they won’t even blink.

Sometimes writers want to boil down writing into steps and charts and easy-as-1-2-3. But in my experience, writing isn’t like building a cabinet or setting the clock on your car stereo. Writing is an act of creation. And there is something mysterious about creating.

James Sallis talks about writing this way: In the corner of the room, in his peripheral vision, there is a form. It is out of focus. As he writes, the form takes shape,. The more he writes, the more he understands what the shape is, what it is becoming, what it will be.

Back to that story where I’d made the wrong choice for my character. I didn’t want the story to die. So I read back through, found where I’d gone wrong and rewrote the scene. The story sparked to life again, and — sensitive now to the story — I eased my grip on the steering wheel. I let the story decide which turns to take.

Being sensitive to the energy of a story alerts you to where you’ve strayed off track, where you’ve left something out, where you’ve gone too far. Being sensitive to the creative process sets a story free, gives it energy, makes it shine.

Are you the sensitive type?

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16 thoughts on “Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Ten: Be the sensitive type

    StrayfishFiction said:
    January 5, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Three parts of me respond to this viewpoint: the artist – which is what I was in my teens and early twenties, the scientist (psychologist) of the last 40 years, and the wannabe fiction writer of now and into my dotage. As an artist, I knew that some of the best ideas came unbidden and I would be compelled to leap out of bed at some ungodly hour to scratch marks on a pad. This was not unusual among fellow artists and it’s the reason many of my friends got into hallucinogenic drugs which weren’t clever but they were artificially inducing a relaxation of the boundaries between conscious and unconscious processing. Neuropsychology makes that distinction clear and shows how one form of processing – linear and logical – is the vehicle for the other, the bubbling miasma of parallel thoughts and concepts from which it chooses its message. What has also become apparent more recently is that the brain (or mind – I’m not sure which) has made a decision almost 6 seconds before the mind (or brain) becomes aware of it. All of this supports the notion of allowing the story to guide the writing with just the framework of consciousness to ensure it is intelligible at the end. It suits me and if it suits you, I’d say give it full reign. I loved your story about the dog and the crape tree. It has those elements of loose but viable constructs to it. And I’d have polished off the husband too!

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm

      Holy cannoli, your comment just blew me away. Awesome! Now you’ve got me thinking about that 6-seconds-before bit. That is wild. I love it. And thank you for your kind compliment about my story. 🙂

        StrayfishFiction said:
        January 6, 2010 at 3:32 pm

        Good eh? I love it when science and experience collide and substantiate each other. There’s evidence that such boundary loosenings are responsible for all sorts of creative and innovative thinking because they allow for original associations. And if all this is going on under the surface, all we have to do is listen and add shape. What amazing creatures we are!

        PS I need to subtract 10 years from the above. Maths were never my strong point!

    Heather said:
    January 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Amy–I loved that bit about the fireflies–beautiful imagery. I let my stories go their own ways, at least, I think I do. Then sometimes I go back, and realize just what you did–that I chose for my characters. And then I go back and fix.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      Apologies for the delay in responding. Thank you for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t always listen to her characters. 🙂 Good luck with your writing. Thank you again for reading my blog.

    Angela Cerrito said:
    January 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Firefly example = great!
    Scrubbing the tub = not for me!
    My first visit to ur blog (found you from Lee’s blog)

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:46 pm

      No scrubbing the tub? I’m guessing not the toilets either? There’s something about scrubbing that triggers my creative brain, LOL! Thank you for reading my blog and commenting. 🙂

    Tina Lee said:
    January 9, 2010 at 9:36 am

    First visit here. Love the post. Reminds me that I can’t force things. I love the comments too.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I apologize for the late response. (Stupid busy week.) Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Peggy Abrahams said:
    January 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Really like your point about making the wrong choices for your character. I’m always fascinated by the writing process itself. There are elements of my stories that evolve like organic parts of the plan – and then, there are twists that seem to pop up spontaneously, threatening to make everything go haywire. Sometimes – haywire is the way to go.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Peggy. Thank you for reading and commenting. (Apologies for the late reply.) I like that: “Sometimes, haywire is the way to go.” Awesome!

    Wendy said:
    January 9, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    The firefly’s scenario was a perfect example! Beautifully executed.

    Enjoyed my visit 🙂

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

      Hi Wendy. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

    Lisa Nowak said:
    January 10, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Amy, I love the things you write about. Granted, I have only read two posts so far, but this guarantees that I will read more. Just not today, because I have to go do some writing. 🙂

    I had an experience like this the other day, but I listened to the character. According to my outline, Cody was supposed to get mad at his girlfriend, Jess, because she had been keeping something important from him. But when I got to the scene, Cody wanted to give her a hug to comfort her because of trauma she’d just suffered. He understood why she kept the secret from him because he’d kept plenty secrets of his own. All well and good, right? Well, the other day my sister read this chapter and she said it was not at all what she was expecting, but it made perfect sense. I told her how I’d wanted to write the way she’d expected, but Cody had other plans, and we had a good laugh about that. I guess one added benefit to all this is that I surprised my reader, and that’s generally a good thing (unless they flat-out don’t believe the surprise).

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      January 12, 2010 at 1:02 pm

      Thank you, Lisa. 🙂 I’m glad you like what I’ve posted here. That is very cool about your chapter going a surprising way. Sounds like listening to your character was the way to go! Continued success to you in your writing. 🙂

    john said:
    June 9, 2014 at 4:29 am

    This is totally me.

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