Process, Writing

Why does it take me a long time to have simple ideas?

Here’s one thing I don’t understand about writing. I’m now working on a short story that’s been in my mind for about five years, but I could never get it going. I knew the world, the characters, the plot, but it spluttered out every time I started it. This happens to me a lot.

A few days ago the world popped back into my head and felt present and immediate, so I tried again. Plot notes in front of me – don’t be impressed, they look like this

organisation is not my strong point. Though I am really great at spending too much money on stationery with flowers on it. Anyway, plot notes in front of me I proceeded to stare at them, and at the blank page (I draft longhand) and to cave in and fuck around on my computer, then stare at my paper some more, with nothing going on in my head. I would swear it. No scenes from the story running through my mind, no plot-compost churning itself up in my subconscious. Just blankness, bitterness, self-recrimination, and Twitter   self-hatred.


Zadie Smith talks about this thing she does using books as a kind of course-corrector:

“My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if my sentences are too baggy, too baroque, I cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If I’m disappearing up my own aesthete’s arse, I stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say and pick up Dostoyevsky, the patron saint of substance over style, a reminder to us all that good writing is more than elegant sentences.”

(Full lecture here, paywall though.)


So I did that. I read some Carmen Maria Machado, which is always an excellent thing to do if you’re looking for beautiful, lucid prose, and that reminded me of the kind of exactness I wanted. I realised I was thinking too baggily about the whole thing – I needed to find my moment of entry into the story. Then I read some Alaya Dawn Johnson, and that was a big mistake, because I then spent three or four forlorn hours thinking about how I’ll never write anything as good as ‘A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i’. (I’d read her novel The Summer Prince, which is also great, but this was the first of her short fiction I’d read.) So after a few hours being sad (and also a bit residually creeped out) and reading horrible news and getting even more sad and then doing hours of life stuff I sat down again and bam. Got the first line, remembered the story, got pages and pages.


& what I don’t understand is this – if my brain was going to click and just get it, why does it need to take so damn long? If I was Borges or even writing vaguely intellectual Borges knockoffs then fine, your brain needs time to process ideas, but I’m not. My lightbulb moments are more like – wait, this bit needs to be in flashback. Or, hmm, maybe she kills the zombie with a rock and not a gun. Big league stuff. Why can’t I just sit down and work out what is, after all, pretty damn obvious?

My conclusion is that, well, I just can’t, apparently. I just have to wait. My brain works in slow, scribbly circles – but it does seem to get there, in the end, if I persist (persistence being a whole other problem.) Feeling incompetent for long periods of time also seems to be an inevitable, though not helpful, part of the process.





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