Julia Brown is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Houston, and an assistant fiction editor at Gulf Coast.
A few weeks ago, an internet meme made the rounds that sparked a little too close to my woodshed:
I can relate. Most people I know can relate.
Why, I wonder.
Why should we cry when we’re only arranging words on a page, and there are no actual torture implements involved? In an effort to better understand my own creative process I’ve been thinking about resistance. There’s a particular inner temper tantrum that so often accompanies the writing, and I’m trying to get my head around it. Turns out, my temper tantrum, too, has its stages:
I. No. Just, no.
Sometimes, I begin the work with an open refusal to work. I am contrary by nature, and story first occurs to me as an insistent, low-grade nag—a constant tug I’m compelled to push against. My life is okay. My life is fine. Why should I spend my time with not-even-living people of questionable intelligence making horrible decisions? I feel anger toward my characters. I take four showers a day. I sulk around in a snit. (I get most of my Netflix watching done in this particular snit.) Those characters? Not my problem.
II. Fear of failure.
Story and I, we start to communicate. We get closer. We spend a lot of time in coffee shops, trying to work out our differences. When my guard is down low enough, I start confessing like crazy:
It’s not you, it’s me.
Often I get overwhelmed, afraid that I won’t do you justice.
I wanted to examine you and learn your shape, but all I can do is stare my own limitation in its stupid, hate-worthy face.
Those characters? I am their problem.
There! I said it! A load off, I drink americanos back-to-back and go home and take a few more showers.
This level of honesty feels good. Wherever the hump is, I’m over it. Boiled long enough, though, the babble always shrinks down to fear of failure. And we’ve all read enough self-help by now to know that fear of failure is not an excuse for anything.
I turn off the Netflix, go to the desk, and start.
III. The refusal to know too soon.
Well, not quite. I’m not writing yet.
Thankfully, I’m no longer stuck on my personal limitations, but I am stuck on characters. Setting. And, oh god, plot. What should happen to these people? Why for? Those characters—What is their problem? I have lots of questions that aren’t getting answered, and don’t seem to want to be answered. My impulses are vague.
The thing I’ve been calling "story" is sometimes only an image, an exchange between two people, a motion, something even fuzzier and more formless than any of those things. I used to be in a rush to impose narrative order on those fleeting mental impressions. I’d crowbar some awkward solution onto the page by sheer force of will, when the whole wasn’t revealing itself quickly enough. No two ways about it: when I did this, I was wimping out. The print even looked soggy.
I’m less inclined to force answers out of anything these days. This reluctance does not stem from a refusal to know, but from a refusal to know too soon. When I’m refusing to know the work, I’m anxious and jumpy. But when I’m looking squarely at the work, refusing to know it too soon, I go slow. I think What if? I test a few sentences, even before I’m ready, and wait for the tiny mental clicking into place.
I am carried through this stage by a buzzing in the universe, listening for whatever, until a bizarre stretch of dialogue I mishear on the bus or some thought that overtakes me (in the shower, probably) draws a good, thick answer out from wherever it’s been hiding.
IV. Ta-da! There’s a bunny in the hat?
This next part, I’m real iffy on.
It could be sheer desperation (or the sour, rubbery taste of a hard deadline in my mouth) that forces me to finally sit down in the chair and write. Before I know anything, it’s made—a mark in black ink on white paper. It’s barely anything, but it’s awful, it sucks, and here are a few more! A page of them! Four!
This is the iffy part: I can’t quite say what happens next. I go dark. I disappear. Something unlatches. Sentences bloom, somehow. Words work themselves onto page after page without my having to do much at all, it seems. The unknotting of whatever it was that had me so tense, that unhooking, it’s all the magic I need in this world. My pen hand knows what it’s doing, even when I don’t. I often forget to take showers at this stage.
I am also oddly in touch with my body. My blood is elated as it rushes through the veins in my face. My spleen is joyful, doing whatever it does. I don’t know how I know it, but I know it—all my internal organs are in fine, working order.
Problems? Were there problems? What problems? Who’s got problems?
Let me introduce you to my characters.
(This relief is, invariably, short-lived. In just twenty-four hours I can see flaws crawling on the work like maggots on rotting meat. Very few of the words I wrote turn out to be the right ones. But it feels like a much more manageable task, changing an existing thing into a better thing.)
V. Rilke, shining forth.
The good news is that I am hanging out less and less with resistance these days. I don’t spend nearly as much time saying no to the work as I do facing it down, trying to get a fix on exactly what the right questions are.
I knew it was time to let the whole matter of process rest when, out of the blue, a few days ago, a dear friend sent me a Rilke quote from Letters to a Young Poet. It’s the Rilke quote, my favorite Rilke quote:
Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Our man Rilke glides in once again with the eternal answer to the question of questions: process is needful, and if resistance is part of process, then it, too, serves. Let it serve, how it serves.
Everything, Rilke said, is gestation, and then bringing forth.