Friday, April 06, 2007

Ruts and Grooves

I think Twyla Tharp wrote her book The Creative Habit for me. Not to belabor the point or anything, but last night I dove into her book yet again and found another chapter to take to heart.

This one is about ruts and grooves.

Been there, done that -- with both of them. The grooves are fantastic. They are the times when everything makes sense, when the characters do exactly what I expect them to do -- and they only need to do it once to get to the next scene. My characters, my story and I are all "in the zone" -- we are grooving right along.

Sometimes that happens. The thing is, I never ever know when. Sometimes it lasts for half an hour or for a whole day or, rarely, on a whole book. Those are the books we say "write themselves." Oh, for a few more of them!

And then there are the ruts.

Somehow the ruts seem more prevalent. They are the points at which nothing works, the words are like glue, stuck to the ends of my fingertips, refusing to get off the keyboard and onto the screen. Or they get on the screen, act badly, and need to be taken off again. And again. And again.

Ruts are not, Twyla Tharp is quick to point out, the same thing as 'writer's block.' If 'ruts' are what you get when you spin your wheels, 'writer's block' is when you can't bring yourself even to get in the car, the engine is dead, you're out of gas.

My friend Michelle Reid suggested that all the months I spent trying to get Flynn and Sara down the street from her New York apartment to the coffee shop where they could have their confrontation might mean that I had writer's block. I didn't think so. I didn't mind showing up every day. I didn't mind putting the words on the page. I just wanted them to get somewhere.

And basically, for four months, I was stuck in what Montanans call "gumbo" -- that gooey sticky silty mud that covers dirt roads and not-really roads in any rain and which gets in the tread of your tire and sticks. And what you get in the tread sticks to what's on the ground. And what's on the ground is -- pretty soon -- on your tire, which is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And pretty quick your wheels aren't even spinning. You're not going anywhere at all.

And the only thing I could do then was try a different road. There was no point -- after the sixtieth time or so -- of going down the same one. They might have walked from Montana to New York in the amount of time it took them not to get to the coffee shop one block away!

So I threw it out. That might sound drastic. And it's not the choice of first resort. But after you've walked the same block that many times unsuccessfully, there just isn't any other option. If there are ruts in this road, you have to go a different way.

Tharp suggests that ruts often result from sticking too closely to what you're familiar with -- using the tried and true. Shaking things up, going for something totally different can often unstick you, get you out of the rut and, hopefully, into a new groove.

I think that's true. I knew very early on exactly what I thought Sara would do. It made sense, but it wasn't Sara. Sara, apparently, had other ideas. Ideas that certainly didn't occur to me in the first instance. Or even the 5oth. I needed to spend a lot of time doing it wrong before I was convinced it really was wrong.

Those are the three things Tharp points out:
  • I had to see I was in the rut (that was about the umpteenth time I watched Sara and Flynn walk down that street)
  • I had to admit it to myself and stop trying yet another way to get them there (that means I had to throw out 12000+ words)
  • I had to find a new way for them to go. Something that felt more exciting (almost anything at that point). Something that I hadn't thought of first or even second or third. Something that worked.
And the scary part is, of course, I had no idea what would work until I tried it. The first things I had already thought of sounded perfectly plausible. And they were. But they were dull. Pushing the edges of the envelope (and I really didn't push them that far) still got me to a place where I felt they had more of a chance to develop. And so far, I think I'm right.

But I won't know for another three weeks if I'm right. I'll know sooner, of course, if I'm wrong. I've got my fingers crossed.

So far, so good.

* * *
Liz Fielding seems to have found inspiration in The Creative Habit as well. At least she's ordered her own copy -- as have I. And she's off to buy a box at Borders. I hope you find a great one, Liz! (and a pic of some purple shoes!)

I think that a new box sounds like a great idea. It will be my treat when I get Flynn and Sara out of here -- a new lovely box for my new lovely book. Yes!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anne you're a dangerous woman, I've ordered a copy too! Hope you're having a lovely Easter weekend, the sun is shining here in Dublin, yipee!
x Abby Green

07 April, 2007  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Abby, the sun is shining here, too! It is also WAY BELOW freezing. In other words, it looks beautiful outside, but you just don't really want to be out there. Plus it's freezing my pretty blue flowers (aka scilla siberica!) and my daffodils.

Happy easter to you, too!

07 April, 2007  
Blogger Liz Fielding said...

It's absolutely gorgeous here in Wales. Brilliant sunshine. Warm. Not writing weather!

And those are gorgeous shoes, Anne. Not quite the shoes I had in mind but I'm going to copy the photograph and keep it until I find something closer to what I'm looking for.

In the meantime, I've got a do-it-yourself box from my local craft shop. Yellow and white and sunshiny, with a yellow satin bow. When I've made it, I'll post a picture. If I can remember where I've tidied away my camera charger.

07 April, 2007  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Enjoy your new box, Liz. It sounds perfect for a "spring wedding" theme. Post a picture on your blog when you can.

07 April, 2007  

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