Rearranging the furniture
For months I was working on a story, interrupted frequently by work (I teach creative writing, and direct a creative writing programme), and by life (husband, kids, dog, cat), and unable to get past a certain point. My character had just arrived back in her home town to visit her father who’s in hospital. She has an uneasy relationship with her sister, who failed to come at the airport to pick her up. In the early pages of the story, she’s keeping her annoyance with that sister tamped down. My plan was for her to meet her father, to somehow discover that he isn’t her biological father, and for some sort of shit to hit the proverbial fan.
Except, I couldn’t get her out of the small restaurant she holes up in because it’s not visiting hours at the hospital, she can’t get hold of her sister, and she has work to do. I wrote scenes where she meets her beloved Dad then talks to his doctor, a scene in which she’s (eventually) at her sister’s . . . so many scenes that somehow felt like filler. I kept asking myself, “Who’d be interested enough to read on?” After all, that is the essential question. I considered scrapping the story entirely. (I’ve got the openings of several stories on my hard drive that I couldn’t finish, often because I didn’t have the mental room to work out what I needed to do with them.)
Now it was the semester was over and I could wrote, I fiddled around with the story for days. When I’m stuck I go back through what I’ve written, over and over, tweaking it, getting to know its every possibility. I even jotted down ideas on a piece of paper because changing how I’m writing can help (though I just cannot outline). And yet, I felt as though there was no way to salvage this piece. By day four, I was frustrated and closed my laptop. I took the dog for a walk (he never says no), made dinner, watched a film with my menfolk, and wondered what the hell to work on the next day, because now I needed a new project. Then that night as I was going to sleep, an idea wafted into my head: it wasn’t the beloved dad that my character was going to visit but her mum, with whom she has never got on. It felt so very right. I knew I was unlikely to forget it, but just in case I wrote it down, plus the idea that came to me for the very end of the story.
The next morning I rewrote what I had, substituting Mum for Dad. That was easy. Then over a couple of days I wrote the rest of the story–three scenes, that’s all I needed–as though it was right there waiting for me to find it. All those months, the story had been impossible to write because the central conflict was too far away. By bringing in Mum, and Mum saying something she shouldn’t have, the rest of story was set in motion.
In the process I had to jettison some parts of the story that I was attached to. They’re on my hard drive, because it was easier for me to persuade myself to cut them. I’ve never gone back and retrieved bits and pieces that I ended up slicing away, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was being able to remove what wasn’t working, to pay attention to what else was in the story that I’d overlooked and use it. The process felt like rearranging the furniture–some fuss and bother of moving everything, but then suddenly the room looked right in a way it just hadn’t before.
Photo credit: Jean-Philippe Delberghe