So the other day I spent close to four hours on a story. I only stopped to move to another place with better lighting. And to order food, which I ravenously wolfed down with one hand while the other was on the keyboard. It’s a story I’ve been working on for ages (the first draft was written back in 2006), and the more words I add to it the more I realize I wouldn’t want it published. Unless I want to be sued by the real people who inspired it. It’s supposed to be ‘fiction’ with enough details close to life to make people point fingers and speculate. And in a small town like Mombasa, you seriously don’t want to set the ball of speculation rolling. Trust me.
Writing can be an emotionally draining experience. That’s the main reason why I tend to write in ‘spikes’ and things like nanowrimo never work for me. I might stay away from a work-in-progress for a long time and then spend four hours in a single day writing. Not only can writing be time-consuming, it can also be unsettling. It’s how Natalie Goldberg once said, “Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.”
And sometimes writing may result in insomnia. We cannot sleep until we’ve put those those words on paper (or an iphone note). I actually kept an insomnia notebook one summer. Before smartphones came along.
And you know the worse part about writing stories?
It’s when you actually go to sleep and end up dreaming an upsetting scene. It happened to me once, but I still haven’t had the emotional capacity to write down the story around that one scene because it was too sad, thinking about it makes me tear up occasionally, I just imagine the disastrous effect writing about it would have.
But you know despite all its downfalls, writing helps us understand people, understand ourselves. It helps us figure things out things about life in general. In one of the scenes I wrote yesterday, my protagonist’s friend tells her, “Sometimes our secrets define us. No matter how much time we spend together you can never really know the true me because the things I choose to hide are as much a part of me as the things I choose to tell. Does that even make sense?”
Last but not least, it can be therapeutic.
Explains why I’m here. Good night.
You know how when someone walks into a room that already has two people and wants to kick one of them out, they say, “Take a walk. I need to talk to your friend here”?
Sometimes when you’re facing a white page trying to find inspiration, making that extra mug of coffee or wiping the dust off the keyboard won’t lure ideas out. So maybe it’s time to kick yourself out of your hobbit hole and take a walk. And if you are ready to lug things around you could carry your journal, a pen and a camera though your phone could probably play the functions of all of those.
I tried that today and by the time I was done from my walk I had a list of ideas to explore. Of course this list brought on a different type of problem; there were too many ideas, the question was which one to tackle first? And naturally that can be a procrastinator’s cue line to tackle none and go to sleep. But that mostly happens because we want whatever we create to be perfect and that daunting standard we set for ourselves becomes the very thing that stops us from doing anything at all. So another thing to remember is that anything imperfect is better than a perfect nothing.
Before I leave, a couple of days ago, the health and sports officials in the UAE launched ‘Start Walking’ campaign; a public health awareness campaign by the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC). Their message according to Khaleej Times was “A 30-minute brisk walk everyday can help, manage, reverse and even prevent diabetes. So, start walking.”
So now that you’re done reading this, take a walk. If you don’t get inspired, at least you could lose a few calories.
Sometimes ‘staying away’ is easier than ‘walking away’.
The first step of anything is always the hardest to take as it deals with a shift in the current state of equilibrium. It takes time for someone to adjust to the change that occurs. It takes time for life to move to a new state of equilibrium, aka the ‘staying away’ part.
If you think about it, change is mostly about overcoming inertia and maintaining momentum, with overcoming inertia the harder part of the two. I learnt that on the treadmill. My normal workout includes some time on the elliptical followed by a run on the treadmill. So once I was so tired after my elliptical session, I didn’t have the energy for the treadmill. Yet I told myself, “Just start and you’ll stop after five minutes”. Yet when I started, the adrenaline kept me going for so much longer than the five minutes I had planned.
I know I haven’t posted anything for a while and it’s not like I’m not writing, but rather I’m just not posting what I write. Most of the posts I have are half-baked, and I realize I never have the energy to carry an idea to completion. After 100 words, I tend to just lose my focus and talk about something else (exactly like what I’m doing here). But I’m going to be honest with you. Every time I sit in front of wordpress’s empty page nowadays I ask myself, “What’s the point? What’s the point of writing all this? Who reads this stuff anyway?”
I feel it’s normal to have all these self-doubts because writing is a very lonely process. They claim writing is supposed to be a two-way communication between reader and writer, when I sometimes think it’s just a person speaking at the beginning of a dark tunnel and listening to his own echoes wondering if there’s anybody listening on the other side. But the most important thing about writing happens to be my message for the day; “Dare to begin as it’s usually the hardest step.”
A lot of times we go through experiences that tend to upset us or haunt us. While they may not be entirely traumatizing, they can be really clingy. Take for example embarrassing moments that we can’t seem to forget about or people who’ve deliberately walked out of our lives we don’t seem to let go of. So today I made up a recipe for writers on how to make the best of those situations.
1 stick of facts (or butter)
1 cup of imagination (or sugar)
1 teaspoon of more imagination (or vanilla extract)
2 speculations (or eggs)
½ cup of characters (or all-purpose flour)
1/3 cup of setting (or Cocoa)
¼ teaspoon of conflict (or baking powder)
¼ teaspoon of theme (or salt)
1) Start with the facts. That’s as essential as the butter-sugar-vanilla mixture when one is making brownies. You can just list the chronological order of the incident as bullet points but at the beginning just stick to the facts.
2) Speculate. Add your speculations and judgements. Realize that while the details of the incident may be laid out as facts, a lot of how feel about it comes from our pre-conceived notions, background and experiences. During your speculation stage, try to look at the incident from other point of views, and challenge any assumptions you might have made about it. In other words, beat them together the way you would beat the eggs.
These first two points deal with the plot of whatever story you’re going to write out of the life incident. Next we move to the rest of the story.
3) Draw up characters and give them names. The thing with us writers is that sometimes we don’t really understand a situation until we put it down on paper. It’s true we tend to think of paper.
4) In the case where we’re turning this incident into a work of fiction, this is the point where we add elements that would fluff it up a bit the way the baking powder would. But since stories have to have setting and themes, you have to add cocoa and salt to the baking powder and stir together.
5) Get into the zone the way a baking pan would get into an oven heated to 350 oF. Call it the creative zone, call it whatever…Let the story grow its own legs and take you in different directions if it must. You might start at a true-life incident and end with something that you would never do in real life, but would fill you with satisfaction.
And by that, you might have a story that was inspired by a clingy incident, and you would realize why the incident was so clingy in the first place (maybe its purpose was to act as inspiration for a piece of art and it wouldn’t let you go until you wrote it). Also whenever the incident comes up, you’ll end up thinking about your piece of art, and you might be so consumed by the piece of art to be bothered by the real incident.
Alternatively, just use the recipe between the lines, bake some brownies and enjoy eating them.