The puzzle of writing

novel wall


Well I haven’t been blogging much lately, as you may have noticed. I have been writing a lot, however. Some of it has been for the CORE blog, or for internal CORE documents (we’ve been revising our mission, vision, theory of change, and strategies). But most of it has been either “morning pages” or other writing practice, or scenes for my novel.

In November I participated in “National Novel Writing Month,” where the challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to write 50,000 words of your novel in the month of November. That’s 1667 words a day, on average. I’d been warned that NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, wasn’t necessarily a good strategy – one writing friend said her writing coach advises against it, because it can lead to creating quantity without quality. And I knew that a large part of my “research” for the novel was “me-search” – practicing slowing down, to understand my relationship to time. So trying to write it quickly seemed like a particularly silly idea.

Another writer friend suggested I set my own goals for “NaNoWriMo.” So, I did – qualitative goals like getting all my hand-written ideas transcribed, and time goals like 20 hours/week on the novel (writing and research). Throughout the month I held the idea of 50K words as a sort of crazy, aspirational, likely unattainable goal. Yet I said “no” to a number of other things to make time for writing, and scheduled a writing retreat, and some extra writing dates. I also attended a day-long conference called “Weekend with your Novel” at the UW-Extension, which didn’t involve a day’s worth of writing, but was quite helpful in other ways. Really, I was using NaNoWriMo as a way to experiment with what it would feel to make writing my primary commitment after family.

The first half of the month I actually was on pace to accomplish 1667 words/day. This was due to the fact that I had a lot of words I’d hand-written but hadn’t yet typed up, and my writing teacher and writing friends all said these definitely counted. And of course, as I typed them up, I edited and added to them. About mid-month, during my self-guided writing retreat at a friend’s lovely house on the Wisconsin River, I finished transcribing all the hand-written scenes and snippets. What next? I spent a day rereading the scenes and creating a synopsis of each one in Scrivener, the writing program I’m using. It felt like I spun my wheels after that for a bit, but I eventually managed to shift my focus to writing new scenes, by using the writing practice techniques I’ve been learning from Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Miriam Hall. I gave up (again) on the 50K goal, but kept up with my other goals.

As the last week of the month approached, I was at around 35K words. I had a bunch of other things going on – we hosted a Thanksgiving gathering with friends (who brought a lot of the food); a college-age friend was home for the holiday who I wanted to see, there were various family meetings and appointments, including Sarah’s cat getting sick… I kept writing as much as I could, and kept thinking maybe I could make 50K, if I got really inspired…

On the morning of Nov. 30th I had about 41K words written. So close, and yet so far! I gave up, again… but skipped my drop-in dance class in the morning to write, had a phone meeting and took Sarah’s cat to the vet in the afternoon, came home and went back to writing. That evening, I wrote a 2387-word scene set in Nepal that was incredibly fun to write and one of the most creative things in the whole novel, weaving together a lot of the experiences I had there into the fictional storyline! This kind of invention could probably ONLY have happened when I’d been deeply immersed in the project with the intensity with which I’d been focused on it that month.

When I finished that scene, I felt satisfied with the month… and, it was still Nov. 30th, and I still wasn’t at 50K words! I was so close that I thought I could actually make it if I stayed up well past my usual bedtime. And it would be more fun to tell people that I made it than that I didn’t – the only remaining incentive, pure ego. I wrote until 11:59 pm and made it to 50,287! At the end, I was a bit desperately cutting and pasting stuff in from a couple of blog entries I’d written… it felt like maybe that was cheating, and certainly risked the “quantity not quality” criticism… but in hindsight, I’m glad I did it, if only to give myself a reminder of what that kind of mad dash towards a deadline feels like – since it’s part of the culture of speed that my story is about!

A few days later, on December 4th, I wrote this, about myself and my protagonist:

Rushing had its uses. She overrode her tiredness. She was racing the clock, in a way she hadn’t done since she was an undergraduate. She overrode her body‘s natural urges to sleep, yes, but she also overrode perfectionism. She slapped things together. Didn’t edit. Went with any crazy idea that occurred to her. It was refreshing, in a way.

I think that turning off the internal critic is precisely one of the reasons so many people love NaNoWriMo.

Today is day 4 of another self-guided writing retreat, at home this time. I had quite a few more hand-written scenes to transcribe the first day. I’ve also been sorting through the many scenes I’ve written and figuring out their relationship to one another. I had a very rough plot outline I was working with most of last year, but I was not sticking to it closely, and not writing in any kind of order – just responding to writing prompts, to dreams, to ideas as they floated into my brain. And, sometimes, giving myself writing prompts that came from the outline.

I’ve continued to write synopses for new scenes since my last writing retreat, and Scrivener has a function where you can print them out on index cards, or onto paper and cut them apart into index card-size pieces, which is what I did. I put up my giant sticky wall (a facilitator’s tool, ripstop nylon coated with sprayed-on 3M “Post-It” glue, so you can stick any piece of paper on it, and move it as needed) with painter’s tape. I arrayed my index cards on the wall, one per scene or snippet I’ve written, and it nearly covers the whole wall! I realized how wonderful it is to have something so visible, so tangible, to show for my year of work on this project! That’s the sculptor side of me, I guess. It also helped me figure out the larger chunks of the story structure.

Sadly, the wall fell down in the night, and the pictures Anita and I had taken weren’t high enough resolution to read the cards. This contributed to day 3 of my writing retreat not feeling very “productive.” Even before the wall fell down, I was also struggling to get the timeline figured out – how old are the protagonist’s kids going to be when X happens? And how old is she, and her mother? And can this scene which has snow in it happen in the right sequence or do I need to rewrite all the scenery because it needs to happen at another time or place? I have another piece of software I got for this purpose, Aeon Timeline 2, which synchronizes with Scrivener, but I was struggling with how to use it too.

I’d gotten Don to help me put the sticky wall back up with stronger, artist’s tape, and this morning I woke up to find it still on the wall (yay!) I realized that figuring out the timeline by adding dates to the wall was easier and more fun than using the software. And I was amused to notice the irony of struggling with the timeline for a novel about time!

Last week I had an impromptu reunion with two grad school colleagues who were in my dissertation support group (very sadly, we were gathered to say goodbye to our beloved professor Erik Olin Wright, who is dying). I told Rachel and Greta about my novel, they told me about their research and, and we reminisced about our support group. Rachel reminded me of this piece I’d written and included as an appendix to my dissertation, about why you can’t answer the question “how far along are you” on your dissertation. It applies equally well – or maybe even more so – to writing a novel.

How a Dissertation is (NOT) Like a Jigsaw Puzzle

Throughout the four and a half years I was working on this project, I was frequently asked “how far along are you?” or “when will you finish?” In an effort to explain to people why I couldn’t answer this oh-so-reasonable-sounding question, I compared the process to doing a jigsaw puzzle. Except that you don’t know what it’s a picture of, and you can’t look at the box cover to find out, because no-one knows what the final picture is supposed to look like. On top of this, you don’t know how many pieces there are in your puzzle, and you don’t have all of the pieces, but have to keep going on scavenger hunts for more pieces. More difficult still, some of the pieces you find may not actually belong in your picture, and you have to figure out which ones those are.  You’d like to simplify matters by beginning with the outline, but unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the picture isn’t rectangular, so there are no straight edge pieces, at least not to start with. Some of the pieces you may have to shape yourself, to make them fit.

Sometimes, as with a jigsaw puzzle, you see some pieces that seem to fit together, and play with them for a while on the side, without knowing where in the whole they might belong. With a dissertation, though, you need a hefty dose of faith that you will, eventually, find a place for them in your picture. Fortunately, I love jigsaw puzzles, so I was undaunted by this metaphor. Moreover, I found encouraging one implication of the metaphor: at some point it would begin to get progressively easier, as more of the pieces are fit in, because then there are fewer and fewer pieces to search through to find the one that fits at any given point.

About nine months before I finally completed my dissertation, I thought I had most of the pieces, and a fairly good idea of what the “picture” would look like. The way I had been using the metaphor gave me the illusion that at this point, it should be easy. But I was stuck. Procrastinating, I bought myself an actual, 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. This was the biggest actual jigsaw I had ever undertaken, and it was far larger than I expected. Far from being a distraction from the writing, it helped me immensely to realize that, even when you know the picture, have all the pieces, and can start with the straight-edged ones, it still takes an incredibly long time to do, because you can, after all, only find and place one piece at a time.

Eventually, time for the commencement ceremony rolled around. I was still not done with the dissertation, but I had made enough progress to wear the cap and gown and invite my family and friends to celebrate with me. The 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle was itself nearly complete. In fact, there was just one piece not yet in place. Unfortunately, that piece was at the bottom of an eight-foot-deep ventilation shaft underneath the table on which I had been working the puzzle! It took the combined efforts of several family members and friends to troubleshoot this. The solution turned out to be a loop of tape on the bottom of a heavy, flat-bottomed rock, tied tightly to a string, and lowered oh-so-carefully past the sharp aluminum edges of the ductwork. The string had a twist, causing the rock to spin madly all the way down. A flashlight held carefully by brother Marc guided my retrieval expedition. Two inches from the bottom, I gently tapped the rock against the walls to stop its spin, lined it up over the missing piece, and   – clunk! – dropped it the rest of the way all at once. I pulled it up carefully, hand over hand, and peeled it off the tape. Fortuitously, it had fallen picture-side-down, so there was no loss of color, and the puzzle could finally, just in time for my graduation party, be completed!  I highly recommend this combination of ingenuity, teamwork, and moral support to anyone in the final throes of completing a dissertation or other major creative project.

4 thoughts on “The puzzle of writing”

  1. Becca, I really enjoyed reading about this part of your journey with writing as well as the uplifting story of the puzzle and your commencement party. It is also good to know what has been going on with you since I last saw you at Thanksgiving. I didn’t understand then that you were in the middle of your writing retreat. I’ve gotten together with friends from grad school since then, too. It is definitely time for you and me to do some catching up with each other! 💜

  2. I’ve finally read your blog. Maybe that’s what I should do — start a giant jigsaw puzzle.

    As usual, I resonated so much with what you’ve written. Although my creativity may lie in other directions, such as beads and wall hangings, and, more recently, a project of scanning and then labeling hundreds of documents connected to Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s and 1970s. The latter project expands and expands. Many iterations, but at present I look at the scan of each letter, then record who it’s from and whom it’s to. Then I attempt to summarize succinctly a bit of the content.

    SO many fascinating documents!! However, with this latest iteration of describing the content, my pace has slowed immensely.* My *(self imposed) “deadline” is March 4 when I go back to Vietnam. Afterall, my plane might crash and then what??? But so many other projects lie scattered under my feet (literally), as I walk from room to room in my house. So realistically, my deadline is much sooner. Two days ago I decided to hire a friend to type the 100+ pages I’ve written out by hand. Sound familiar?

    I work with someone who’s instrumental in a huge archive being formed at Plum Village. As she says, many of these projects are group efforts. So, with regular Skype checkins with her (she lives in Italy), and now a buddy’s typing, maybe I’ll accomplish my goal. Along with some others, like travel insurance and that mobile of earth, fire, water, and air, that’s SO close to being done.

    People say, ‘Write about your time working in prisons.’ And for sure there are lots of tales. Anonymity is an issue, though. And i’ve turned my life in other directions. Who knows?

    Love, Margaret

    On Tue, Jan 22, 2019 at 3:47 PM towardanakedheart wrote:

    > towardanakedheart posted: ” Well I haven’t been blogging much lately, as > you may have noticed. I have been writing a lot, however. Some of it has > been for the CORE blog, or for internal CORE documents (we’ve been revising > our mission, vision, theory of change, and strategi” >

  3. Pingback: How is the novel going? Tracking words, hours, and books, oh my! – towardanakedheart

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