“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
— Thomas Mann, prolific German novelist and essayist
So, it’s been a minute. Allow me to explain.
Most of the reason that I haven’t posted in a week or so is that I decided a few days ago that I was going to write an essay. Well, one of several essays that I hope to post over the next several months. Turns out this particular essay is going to end up being kind of long, longer than I had anticipated, because the topic requires some research, and whenever I try to do research on one thing, I end up on the other side of the Internet reading up on topics totally unrelated. I have a problem with information. Mostly that I’m a glutton for it. So that essay is not yet finished, which is why it isn’t posted.
Anyway, this has absolutely nothing to do with what I want to talk about right now. Or maybe it does, just a little bit.
Writing is hard. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a twenty-one-year-old human being.
That sounds sort of nonsensical. Trust me, it isn’t.
What I mean by it is this: when writing, especially when writing fiction, it’s sort of like having to put together a jigsaw puzzle. This is not my analogy, and honestly I don’t even remember where I heard it originally, but it’s true. Nonfiction writing is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where you have an idea of what the final picture is supposed to look like, and probably ninety percent of the pieces are in front of you and face-up and all you have to do is snap them together in the right configuration.
Writing fiction is like building the jigsaw puzzle from scratch, except you paint the picture on each individual piece after it’s cut out, and then you lose pieces, and some of them never end up with paint at all, and you sort of have to recut pieces to fit together the way you think they are maybe supposed to and in the end, you never really come out with an entire puzzle, just a vaguely rectangular sort-of picture that kinda looks like something if you tilt your head to the left and squint just a little.
I mean this with every single thing in me.
Fun fact: I have been trying to write a novel since I was eleven years old.
For over half my life I have had this stupid unpainted jigsaw puzzle strewn across my entire world. Every now and then I find pieces and tuck them away, sometimes stopping to draw some lines on them or test them together to see if they fit. It’s an absolute mess. And probably seventy-five percent of it is still missing. That seventy-five percent is literally the entire plot of this novel.
The problem is I don’t really know where to start.
I have a setting. I have so much of a setting that I’ve gone so far as to draw out maps, name capitals in foreign countries, map political and economic systems, name heads of state, and come up with religious systems and creation myths. I have a cast. Two main characters, several supporting roles, and a slew of minors. It’s like I have this whole stage set, and actors waiting in the wings, and no script.
This is probably the single most frustrating thing in my entire life.
Yes, I have cried over it.
And the thing that kind of makes matters worse for me is that my characters aren’t really talking to me anymore. Not like they used to. Maybe that’s my fault. I don’t know.
Yes, this sounds completely crazy. I understand that. It’s one of those weird writer ticks that other people don’t understand.
“A writer is a world trapped in a person.”
— Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables
Most people talk themselves through daily tasks and decisions. Writers have… help. Writers get up to do the dishes and a foreign voice at the back of their head starts talking about how they would do the dishes, or telling a story about their family china or something. It’s pretty much constant. We learn to live with it. And there’s really no way to explain it that doesn’t sound like dissociative identity disorder or auditory hallucinations.
Anyway, as I said, my characters are being quiet lately. I was listening to a video on worldbuilding the other day, actually, and my male lead said to me, out loud, and clearer than anything he’s said in a long time, “You’re spending too much time in your own world.” Meaning by this, not enough time in his. (As I write that again, he’s purring at me, “You know I’m right.” He’s despicable.)
Maybe he is right. Maybe I do need to just disconnect and spend some time with him and let him lead me through it. Maybe my problem is exactly that I am spending too much time in my own head, worrying over my lack of understanding, or my lack of control, to truly immerse myself in the thing I am trying to create.
It is kind of strange though, thinking about letting a different part of you take over. Because that’s what it is, really. Still you, but not you. A different you. A you you may have been in a different time or under different circumstances. Writing – fiction writing – really is an extreme exercise in empathy. If you don’t feel for your characters and understand their motivations, you can’t write the story convincingly. And if you’re not going to write convincingly, you may as well not write at all.
And that’s why writing is hard. Because empathy is hard. Because putting away your ego and letting someone else lead you can be absolutely the most difficult thing to do. But you have to. It’s the only way.
“How odd I can have all of this inside me and to you it’s just words.”
— David Foster Wallace, The Pale King