Escaping the writing cage

There is nothing like writing a novel to make me feel caged as a writer, the tyranny of a project that feels both never-ending and solitary. At one point in my novel writing journey I stopped writing altogether. Why? There are several possible reasons I could give, including my struggles with depression, or a more generic loss of purpose. What do I suspect the real reason was? In a foolish attempt to force all of my creative energy into my novel, I told myself that was all I could write. No procrastinating with short stories, flash fiction, or the strange dialogues that pop into my head while hovering on the borders of sleep. No, it was time for me to get serious and stop playing around, particularly as I had such limited writing time available to me.

I can understand why this seemed sensible to me at the time, my work-in-progress novel was not progressing despite my best efforts. However, I’d mis-diagnosed the problem. The novel wasn’t moving forward, because I kept tinkering with what I’d already done. I was editing before I’d finished, leaving my story stuck mid-birth, gasping for air. I was so busy trying to get it right, I paralysed myself. I wasn’t giving myself the space to be shit and for that to be OK. I was trying to polish something before I’d even worked out what it should look like. And to make matters worse, I’d cut myself off from all my other forms of creative play. It was a dark time.  I went away on a tutored writing retreat for a week and wrote very little outside of the morning workshops. That takes some doing. I was miserable.

The problem was, I wanted to have written a novel but I no longer wanted to write it. I’d lost the joy and the pain of it. I was the most dangerous thing of all, I was bored. I blamed all the wrong things (too stressed at work, too tired, not enough time, too many real world distractions) instead of recognising that I’d put myself in a writing cage, locked the door and forgotten where I’d put the key.

So how did I escape the cage? It took a while, but here are the ingredients to my cure:

  • I started filling the writing void with the creative output of others, mainly theatre. A lot of what I saw was great, conventional, entertaining theatre, but occasionally I’d see something that curled my toes and electrified my body. On those nights I’d get home feeling restless and uneasy, something inside me re-awakening.
  • As I watched others play with form, and the traditions of storytelling I felt a growing urge to get involved myself. Of course my attention returned to my neglected novel, but instead of throwing myself back into the meat of the thing, I played around the edges with character dialogues, and random scenarios brought to life as nuggets of flash fiction.
  • I kept reading about the craft of writing, as well as attending talks and courses. These would always provide at least one meaningful nugget, and this accumulation of gems percolated in my stubborn brain waiting for me to come to my senses.
  • I fell in love with the story again, realised it was much more complicated and nuanced than I’d originally thought, I stopped trying to dumb it down. I played around with the structure, the characters and the overall shape. I finally accepted that it was the first part of a trilogy (bearing in mind that I was coming from a place of “just wanting it finished”, this was a very important moment of acceptance) and that I still hadn’t fully told myself the story.
  • I got a big piece of white paper and started mapping things out. Ignoring the original draft of the novel (excepting the very well polished first chapter) I started again.
  • I wrote a shitty, full length draft and was surprised by some of the turns the story took once I’d set it free from my mania for tinkering.  There was more darkness and hope than I’d anticipated.
  • I recognised I needed to set my humour free. Accept your weaknesses, to find your strengths. I can only sustain a serious tone of voice for the length of a short story, no more. I’ve tried and failed.  But a comic tone doesn’t have to detract from a serious tale, even one featuring an omnicidal squirrel, a depressed toad, a cross-dressing bureaucrat and earnest teenagers determined to save humanity.
  • I let myself play with my writing again.

We are all far too capable of creating our own cages. Writing a novel is not a linear process going from A to B guided by a benevolent GPS system (unless of course you are writing to a formula, but that is a different type of creative cage altogether). If you don’t do your best to savour the journey, embrace the scenic route and explore the unexpected detours, what joy is there for your audience in reading it? They don’t want to take the quickest route from beginning to end. A novel should not be endured, it should be a big adventure ride with you as the guide.

And where do I sit now on my novel writing journey?  My latest draft is printed and sitting in a nice fat box file. I’m letting it marinate there a while, before I go in for an extensive re-write with fresh eyes. I’m excited about the next draft, after that I may even be ready to share it with some beta readers, or I may not. Only time will tell. I’m learning as I go.  In the interim, I’m playing around with short stories and I’ve booked myself on a playwriting course in the summer. I’m taking no chances, and am determined to remain cage-free.



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