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

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?