Becoming Unstuck: A Guest Post by Gerri Brightwell

The other day, my friend Jen wrote on her Facebook wall, “What in the name of my sainted Aunt Sally made me think I could write a novel? This is too damn hard.” Naturally, several of us threw ourselves into the task of encouraging her on. One friend suggested Jen bribe herself with Cheetos. Another wrote, “BREATHE. Tomorrow is another day. You CAN do it.” Some of us were less kind and took the “Shuttup ya whining and write” approach.

I knew the solution to Jen’s problem wasn’t what I’d suggested (“Bum on chair, fingers on keyboard”), or at least, not exactly. She wrote back that producing a novel is a lot like knitting: the further you get into it, the more tangled it becomes. She’s right. The hitch with the suggestions she got from us, her well-meaning friends, is that you can bribe yourself with all the Cheetos you want, you can walk away and come back tomorrow, you can sit at your computer all day and into the night, but the tangle won’t have gone away.

Of course, you can always go away from the tangle. You can do as Salman Rushdie did when he got stuck: he left his novel behind and took up an invitation to visit Nicaragua during the revolution. When he returned to London the problem of finishing the novel seemed minor, and his life felt quiet and safe (for a while, at least—the novel he was working on was The Satanic Verses).

Time away can help, but a novel can go cold. You might forget why the story gave you a tickle of excitement in the first place, or lose sight of the nuances that had drawn you in. But simply staring at the last page you managed to bash out isn’t a good strategy either. For most of us writing time is limited, and despair sets in as we watch the hours wheel away uselessly.

A few years ago I talked about this problem with a writer visiting Fairbanks. He suggested jumping ahead and writing a scene that would come later in the novel. I gawked at him like he had two heads, but he swore it worked for him. A friend of mine who’s come out with a book on novel-writing has a same-but-different strategy: she uses place-holders to mark where troublesome scenes will go (though once when she sent a manuscript to her agent he promptly phoned her back to ask, “What’s this?” because Chapter Ten had a gap with a note saying “big argument scene here”).

To paraphrase one of my professors, writers are either knitters or quilters—quilters jump around, knitters move in straight lines. I know now that I’m a knitter. I work with my eyes on the ground to uncover the small details I need to drive my story forward (which is why, in the days when I thought I should outline, I’d sit at an almost-blank screen for hours and get nothing more significant out of it than a headache). Not that I don’t outline at all. Occasionally I’ll jot down a few ideas for what could happen next in my novel. That’s as far as I go. It’s useful, and it doesn’t scare me.

Now that I teach writing, I tell my students they have to recognise what kind of writers they are. Are they quilters? Knitters? (For some students I substitute less domestic imagery, that of pilots flying overhead versus explorers hacking their way through the jungle, else they get a tight, worried look on their faces.) This knowledge is crucial: after all, if you’re an explorer type, no amount of promising yourself you’ll outline your novel is going to help, and the sooner you accept that the better.

Pondering Jen’s problem made me think back to the times I’ve been stuck and what I actually do: I go back to the start of my novel (out of desperation—I can’t bear my writing time to drain away with nothing getting done). I’ll correct typos, I’ll tighten up baggy sentences then, hardly noticing that I’m doing it, I’ll delete paragraphs or entire scenes but expand others, I’ll pick up small details and get that heady “Aha!” sensation of knowing how to play off them in a later chapter. Somehow—and it’ll be so clear I’ll wonder how come I hadn’t noticed it before—I’ll realise that a particular scene feels off-course, that it’s dragging the novel to the left when it needs to go right. I’ll delete it and steer the novel onto a slightly different course, a better one, because I’ll know what a better one is, or at least have a clearer idea. Not that I won’t get lost again later on. But by then, I’ll be farther down the road.

Originally from south-west England, Gerri Brightwell first came to Alaska in 1991 for three years but, after time away in Bangkok and Minneapolis, returned in 2004 to teach in the MFA program at UAF. Set in the late Victorian era, her novel The Dark Lantern considers secrets coming to light and respectable people not being all that they seem—or that they should be.

2 thoughts on “Becoming Unstuck: A Guest Post by Gerri Brightwell”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post, Gerri. I am both surprised and reassured to know that my favorite authors frequently throw away half-way finished or entire novels that aren't working (just watched an interview in which Margaret Atwood said this; Andre Dubus, Michael Chabon and many others have tossed away big manuscripts inbetween the ones that got published) or find themselves lost for the first few months or first hundred pages of any project, waiting to find the right voice and pulse. (Just watched a Philip Roth interview about this!) No amount of experience seems to change it. Experience may lead simply to a greater tolerance for that period of uncertainty — a kind of pain tolerance and stamina — until things begin to fall into place, as well as a willingness to discard what isn't working. (But how to tell what isn't working? I think that's just as tough.) Interviewers often seem surprised to discover that extremely seasoned and prolific writers like Atwood and Roth still stumble through each project. The only non-stumblers, I imagine, are people who write by formula.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    There are as many writing strategies as there are writers in the world, but we all share some basic patterns, like knitters or quilters. It's kind of comforting that we all get stuck sometimes. I've also found myself crashing to a halt in the middle of a book. I will try your return-to-the-beginning trick next time, thanks!

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