Wednesday, August 4, 2010

When the Dam Breaks

What kind of creatures are we? Okay, we homo sap, but we writers in particular. What is this drive to look at things and imagine if only they were “different”, “stronger”, “if only they made sense”?

When my first son was little, I used to put him in the baby carriage and go out for an hour or two long walk, to clear my head. Since we lived at the edge of downtown, this meant walking past coffee shops, going into bookstores, crossing the park. I have no idea what normal people do or think about in this situation. We are all, alas, tragically, caught in our own minds. For me, I’d see a person in the corner, and immediately a story would attach to him. I’d walk past the lighted windows of a Victorian and imagine the interior, and imagine the parties that took place there long ago. I could no more stop myself than I could stop breathing.

Now I don’t consciously base my characters on people or situations I see, but I do spend a great amount of time daydreaming about people I’ve met/seen. I spend a great deal of time well... not quite making up stories about them, but sort of “seeing the stories around them” which are always, btw, bigger and brighter than real people’s stories, somehow. I spend a lot of time listening to conversations. I think this is part of the reason I like diners so much. I’ll sit there, sipping my coffee and ten or twenty real people – other people always seem more real than I am, somehow – have conversations around me. I will confess I also read a lot of bios – from famous people and self-published by Joe Schmoe alike. And again, I don’t base my characters on any of this. Not consciously. But things as it were fall in the hopper. And the hopper is where character and story brews.

Sometimes I can tell where an incident/description/character came from. Like... the tv in Dipped, Stripped and Dead. Sometimes even I couldn’t guess. The characters arrive in my head. They talk their own language.

So... apropos what am I telling you that? Well, I don’t know how the rest of you are and I know even less how non-writers are, but I know for a fact after a while, my well runs dry. If I haven’t had time to read a lot and even more importantly, if I haven’t been out and away from the computer enough, I can’t seem to write. I’ve been feeling that way lately. It manifests as day dreaming about going away for a weekend – usually our big, expensive vacations are in Denver for a weekend – and going to museums and parks and gardens and the amusement park (which is almost as good as diners for people watching.)

It’s probably a good thing that I’m going to NASFIC this weekend. However, the reason I’m writing about this at all is that I realized I have to take either the laptop or the eee.

Now, it’s entirely possible that I’ll take these and never write. Just be too busy with NASFIcky stuff to write. In fact, this is highly likely.

However, when the pressure has built to this point, my experience is that if I go away – weekend, con, etc. – the first day I am too fried to do anything. And then the second day I wake up with whatever was blocking me removed and the story trying to pour out.

I’ve written outlines/chapters on: hotel note pads; napkins; the back of receipts; my arm and (the outline of what became DST) on the back of a fast food bag for the happy meal one of the kids had eaten.

Do you have similar experiences? What’s the weirdest thing you ever found yourself compelled to write on? What breaks your “not quite block”? Do you prepare for the break? Or do you have to trick your subconscious into believing you’re not expecting it?


Anonymous said...

Steve and I like to drive through new neighborhoods just to see the folks in their yards mowing the grass, cleaning the garage and all sorts of other daily jobs. We like to imagine what the houses look like on the inside and what the people who live there are like. Okay, I like to do that, not so much Steve. When I go for walks in the neighborhood across the road, I do the same thing. It just opens up my juices to know that there are so many other different lives being led that have nothing to do with me and are very different from the one I live. Their stuff is important to them. I always find myself ready to go creatively after a nice journey into someone else's territory.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I find going away for a short break is a really good way to stimulate my brain and rewire it. I come back ready to work.

Enjoy your break!

Jim McCoy said...

I get blocked a lot when I get stressed out. As I work full time and go to school full time this happens fairly frequently. The key to relieving things for me is just to chuck everything for a day or two, get enough sleep for a couple of days (an extremely rare luxury for me during the semester) and do something that relaxes me.

What that is depends. Sometimes it can be as simple as a trip to the museum with my daughter. After I graduated in May, it took me a solid week of going to be early followed by a graduation party where I didn't exactly end the night sober. Even then I had to write some goofy stuff that had nothing to do with anything to get my brain to loosen up.

Oddly enough, art inspires me as well. I went to a local archive and drew inspiration from a painting on the wall of union on strike. I made a battle scene out of it. I saw another painting during a trip to a local art museum that inspired a scene that I had been struggling to write. I'm still not sure if I got it right, but at least I got SOMETHING. If, upon further consideration, it turns out to not be up to snuff I'll just change it later.

The one thing that has never worked for me is trying to write about something I dreamed. I've attempted a few times and always ended up frustrated. For some reason, the dreams don't seem to hang together quite as well when I'm awake.

Kate said...

I have to de-stress. For me, that means lots of computer games to shut down the normal brain runaround, and settle things down.

Unfortunately, by the time I'm settled, the weekend is over and I have to go back to work.

Chris McMahon said...

I can't say I have ever written on anything too exotic. Probably the most fond memory is an outline I wrote in Nikko on the back of a Mahattan Hotel envelope after my Lunacon trip.

I can't trick my subconscious, but it seems fairly friendly (if stubborn). When I take holidays with the family I go into 'holiday' mode with the writing, focussing on ideas, snippets and descriptive scenes based on what I see. I enjoy the break. Just the rest itself is often enough to bring my creative energies back to the fore.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


When we go driving -- particularly at night -- it's to TALK plots. It's very helpful, the relative isolation, the darkness, and just talking.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This is mixed since a con is always -- for me -- a working break, and I'll be seeing friends. but it should be fine.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think it's jiggling the brain free from its routine that does it. I don't go to the art museum as much as I should. It DOES help.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. I get you on the weekend, Kate. But yeah -- that's the downside of the con. Because I'll be "on" there won't be as much destressing. I mean, it probably will be fun, but not... laid back. The only laid back con I had was Left Coast Crime in Denver, because I knew NO ONE. So I only went down for my panels, and the rest of the time holed up in my room. Liberty con is pretty laid back, but still not, you know "I'm going to hang around in my jammies, reading."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


The year I wrote six books and homeschooled it took to the second week of doing nothing -- literally -- before I even WANTED to write.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Love the picture of the cats under the umbrella, Sarah.