Pulling at the memory of a dream is like yanking on the thread of a sweater. On rare occasion, you find the right piece to gently pull and it fixes the problem in the sweater, moving it toward a more perfect piece. However, most of the time when you pull, you simply watch the sweater unravel before your eyes until there is nothing left but the feeling of absence in the air and a long ball of yarn on the floor. That's what it's like with dreams sometimes. There is nothing left but the haunted ghost of an experience that was so real that it must have happened, even if it was to someone else somewhere else, and yet the memory is murky and faint. If only you could get to that place and tell that story, your life might feel more complete. And yet it always eludes you, moving just beyond the extent of your grasp.
And so it was with my dream this morning. It was a good one--a good story, anyway. It was not such a good dream to experience. In fact, I awoke with a pounding headache, feeling hot and frantic with gritted teeth. However, from what I do remember about it, it was full of time travel and mystery and a young girl who had to be saved in order to protect the world from an inevitable apocalyptic collapse far in the future, and so it violated several of the rules I've created since I wrote my first manuscript during NaNoWriMo last year: (1) No world building components--everything must be tangible and present right here in this world (2) No crazy savior attempts. (3) No parallel universes or other complicated crap that would be difficult to negotiate. (4) No overdone cliche tropes.
Now that I'm looking at that list, I'm considering the possibility that I might never again write another major fiction piece.
And so the truth, if I'm really being honest with myself, is that I am still taking time off from my manuscript. Oh, yes, I have tinkered with it here and there, and I've opened at least 30 different word documents in an attempt to rediscover the sweatery substance of that story, but it seems that once I started pulling on the threads, the whole thing began to unravel and I haven't been able to figure out how to heal the whole piece. I've been doing a lot of reading, which I do not consider a fruitless pursuit, but each time I've sat down to actually write--to really do something with my manuscript--I've found myself in a frantic need of doing laundry or cleaning or some other task that was suddenly so urgent that it could not wait the couple of hours (or days, as the case may be) that an initial revision process would take.
The story feels like the sand dollar in the photo above (though not nearly as lovely)--it's pure and (potentially) beautiful, but with the sand and the salt and the water, it's a bit hard to see it clearly. And even worse, as you try to take capture its essence in an image, what really happens is your own damn shadow keeps getting in the way.
Despite the current stalemate between the story and me, a friend shared an awesome post by Courtney Summers about what to do during the writing process. I found her revision tips to be extremely useful, and I particularly liked her idea about reverse outlining. Of course, my primary problem is that I don't in fact know what the point of my story is. As I discussed before, the story I thought I was writing (back in the days when I was pantsing it and loving every moment of the glorious word count frenzy) was quite different from the one that is now on the page. It's as if the story is still unveiling itself, but unfortunately as time passes, I feel farther and farther away from its secrets.
My current plan? To participate in the James River Writers Conference, and to have a draft and pitch ready by then. I have no idea how I will get there, but I figure it's better to have an action plan, especially with the start of a new school year and the promise of a busy semester.
How do you handle revisions? What do you do when you've lost your way? At what point do you seek out an editor? Are there any writing books that have helped you? I'd love any suggestions and feedback that you have.
They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?” ~Libba Bray
First, a confession: my summer is not turning out the way that I had planned. In fact, it is even busier than the school year, and I find myself missing the routine and predictability of school. (Though I’m teaching a summer prep program, I find that it does not have the same amount of routine comfort.) Additionally, as I know other educators do, I find myself feeling frustrated by my inability to get through the millions of projects that I had planned to take on this summer. I imagine you know the feeling all too well. But enough complaints—the point is that I’m working on being more flexible, both with my schedule and with my writing. I had planned to finish another revision of my manuscript by mid-June, and here it is a few days away from July, and I’ve hardly made any progress on the one I started.
As I spent the day last Sunday sweating and panting along a ten mile "strenuous" hike, I contemplated how hiking is like writing. When you’re first feeling your way along a new trail, everything is a bit uncomfortable. The pathway is there, but it can be hard to find and even more difficult to follow. It’s hard to know how to best utilize the bit of energy you have, and at times the task of simply moving one foot in front of the other can feel insurmountable. And yet you keep on trudging, and if you do the same trails multiple times, you learn the patterns of them. Though it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it does get much more manageable. And all of that time putting one foot in front of the other (while gasping for breath, as the case was this last weekend) helps to generate some new ideas.
This is what I’ve learned about the revision process: sometimes revision is not about writing—sometimes it’s about living. Sometimes it is about waiting. Most of all, it is about patience and endurance. I’m a pantser instead of a planner, so I love sitting down with no road map and writing until the story comes together. When I first began revising, I continued the pantsing method, which I wrote about here. However, I’ve finally realized, six months into the revision process, that without some careful planning and mapping, I could be revising ten years from now with little progress. A Google search about pantsing revisions (can you tell that I’m lost?) led me to this awesome blog post, which helped me confirm that I do in fact need to plan, and that a lot of the “revising” that I was doing earlier is still part of the writing part of the process.
As we hiked through the woods on Sunday, I found myself picking my friend’s brain (which is the brain of a bioengineer with a background in physics), and although I did no writing that day, some of the ideas that we discussed will likely have a fundamental impact on the framework for my manuscript. As I maneuvered around rock faces and between crevices, I was struck by the simplicity of ideas, the way they knock you over when you see a slogan you’ve seen a million times or, in my case, when you break the seal on a newly purchased item. I was amazed by the power of brainstorming and working through hypothetical situations.
The struggle with this latest revision has been a long one, and while I was wallowing in the doldrums of I-don’t-know-what-my-framework-is, a friend shared another great blog post by Libba Bray about the process. I found this one, aptly titled "On Writing Despair," incredibly consoling as I clutched my little laptop and stared at the screen for an extended period of time. It’s long, and funny, which goes a long way when you’re in the midst of the doldrums. The best part of that post is the fact that there is no clear solution. There is simply endless struggle to find and tell the story that is there.
As we came down the mountain at the end of the ridge hike last weekend, I found my mind drifting toward simple things like water and butterflies and deer. My story and all of our brainstorming faded into the back of my mind and I focused on my breathing (which had finally transformed from the harsh panting to a calmer breath). I let the ideas bounce around in my head, unattended, and I have let them continue to marinate this week as other tasks have taken my time.
And so, as summer stretches on in ways that are fun but fundamentally different than I had planned, I am working on being flexible and on forgiving myself for not meeting every goal I have set in place. I'm learning just how accurate the term process is when it comes to writing, and I'm realizing that many factors impact that process.
"that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have..."
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.