It happens sometimes, that a book grinds to a halt. In my experience, this is the rule and not the exception. I will be, for months and months, on firm ground and with a clear path. I will be surefooted, bright-eyed, brave. The story stands around me like an unshakable fortress, a cunning edifice, a cozy den.
And then it collapses. And I am struggling with falling beams and crumbling plaster and illogical plans. Without tools. Without power. In the absolute dark.
This is where I am currently. I have been here before. I have erased and recomposed and erased this book more times than I can count (it is a method of writing that I do not recommend). I have promised the manuscript to my agent, to my writer’s group, to everyone. But it is in pieces, and I am heartsick.
(As I said, I’ve been in this place before. I reach in the darkness and brace a joist to a stud. It holds. I check the footings. They are sound. I move forward. Slowly, slowly.)
It helps me to have something physical that I can hold on to. Something that I can touch, hold in one hand, and then the other. When I was writing The Mostly True Story of Jack, I had a map of the town of Hazlewood that I kept in my back pocket. It was a rough thing (I suck at drawing, after all), scribbled on lined paper. I drew stick figures and inane symbols. A church here. A college there. And look! A park. And look! Clive and Mable’s house. And Frankie’s house. And the place where Wendy beat up Clayton. And the Grain Exchange. And Mr. Avery’s house. And the place where the sinister members of the Knitting League knotted their wicked plans. (Those ladies did not make it into the book, alas. They will show up eventually.) Every day, I would take my map out of my pocket and flatten it out on my desk. I would scribble and erase, scribble and erase. Then fold, and slide the thing back into my pocket.
And it helped. Through all the erasing and fretting and re-doing and undoing. It helped to have something to hold onto.
In Iron Hearted Violet, I had a leather bound book. To start out with, it had the first draft of the book in there. I would carry it from the park to the doctor’s office to the creek behind my house. I wrote the entire first draft longhand (it was considerably shorter than the final version), and, since I wrote much of it during the summertime, and my kids were home, it meant that it had to come with me as I hauled them from program to program, and it had to come with me as we were camping for six nights deep in the belly of the Boundary Waters, and it had to come with me when we went to movies, or when I was getting my oil changed or sitting at the DMV or whatever. I scribbled on that thing constantly.
When I got to the end, and began piecing the story back together on the computer, I used the remaining pages to write notes and to draw sketches about the history, physiology and psychology of dragons. I drew organs and bones. I drew timelines and diagrams. I wrote speculations and lectures and bits of history. When I ran out of pages, I used notecards.
And again, it was something to hold. Something to ground me.
The book I’m writing now is called The Boy Who Loved Birds, and I like it very much. This is how it begins:
When she arrived at the Dough Lady’s house, Mara carried three heavy stones in her left hand pocket. She’d throw them if she had to.
The stones – all from Lake Superior, near Mara’s home – were smooth and oval and cold. They curved into the heat of her hand, cooling her down. If she brought them to her nose, they would smell of iron and storm and smoke. If she brought them to her lips, they would taste like the sky. The weight of each stone felt as precious as breathing.
And so I have stones.
I keep them in my pocket almost all the time now. Because even when the story is stuck, and even when I go in like a vengeful angel and smite text with sword and fire, even when I erase everything, the person of Mara remains. Her indomitable self. Her sadness. Her rage. Her mistakes. Her slow path to forgiveness.
I love her. She infuriates me, but I love her anyway. And I keep her stones in my pocket as a talisman, as a physical thing that connects me to her, her story to the world. And they keep me sane.
For those of you in creative work, what are the things of the world that you bring with you as you sally forth into the uncharted waters of the the imagination – the dark heart of the Unknown? And for those of you in any kind of work, what are the things that allow you to keep doing what you’re doing? What are your talismans?