Writing feels an awful lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. One with a several thousand piece count—minimum. And the pieces aren’t precut at all. I have to jerry-rig them by picking and choosing things from my environment and sharpening those people, experiences, and settings into prose, bit by bit. It’s one big mind game for me. When everything aligns, it’s an amazing high and makes me feel like I’m assembling an epic story. Characters are falling into place, plot arcs are squaring out the edges and aren’t trying to derail the story with chipped pieces, and I’m in this heightened sense of creating something. Box cover? Pfft! I don’t need to consult that for direction because everything fits together perfectly. But then sometimes it’s not so great. Someone clearly stole a few pieces, and trying to figure out what’s missing and what’s throwing things off is like trying to step out of a nuclear wasteland. Except every step from the bleak milieu leads me to smashing my nose on a brick wall. It’s brutal. . . it’s broken teeth and blood. Over time though, I’ve learned to endure it, as it’s not only strengthened my framework for writing, but it’s also fleshed out and strengthened the state of mind for the characters I create.
A Writer’s State of Mind
As much as I’d like to stamp out the bad days altogether, they’ve made me a stronger writer by buffing up my mental defenses. Having somehow crawled through days where it seemed like I was hitting block after block taught me something: it’s okay if I only end up managing to tweeze out a couple hundred words from my mind. Even if it’s one word, that counts! I’ve slayed the dragon and I’m just being a motherfucking sorcerer*. Being in that routine of showing up even when I’m not inspired has made sure that I’m priming my mind to be open to inspiration if it comes. And over the long haul, showing up almost daily has made those inspired days happen more frequently. It also has made it easier to sift out the thoughts that love nipping at my mind just before I’m supposed to sit down and write:
- Lexi could use another walk.
- Those dishes from last night’s dinner aren’t going to disappear magically.
- Gym? I probably should.
- Internet? Yes! Yass!!
- Reading. . .oh yeah! I can always justify reading. Reading = research, right?
I still struggle with those things, but I’ve gotten better at staving off those thoughts and saving some of the indulging for after the writing is done. And I know it might seem obvious, but showing up consistently helped to define my writing process in the first place. When I first started writing seriously, I had no idea what I was doing. Zero. I was clueless about the types of messages I wanted to spread, what my beat was, or even how to articulate things in words that people would even want to read. I just opened a Word file and dove in. Showing up on a consistent basis after that is what has molded me into a writer because it sparked curiosity. When I hit how I should present dialogue in my story, I had to go and research all about it: format for dialog attribution, opinions on using adverbs, how to use real life conversation as a starting off point, etc. When it came time to fix the gaping plot holes in my stories, I had to learn about plot structure, whether it was the hero’s journey, three-act structure, or seven-point plotting. Mastering showing up and writing made it easier to show up and read books about writing or to analyze fiction with a writer’s mindset or to prepare myself to get feedback on my jumble of words. Everything fell into place organically after showing up.
A Character’s State of Mind
Just as I have learned to mold my own cognitive approach to the writing process, I’ve learned to consider my characters’ mental states and readiness as well. In the beginning, most characters aren’t prepared for being who they’re supposed to be by the end of the story. Usually their mental state transitions by way of the experiences the plot arcs hurl at them. Writers are experience generators, so our job is to get our characters suited and prepped by putting them through certain circumstances. It can be cruel sometimes, but it’s all in the name of defining a character’s boundaries. In my first novel, my main character has to be a queen by the end of the story, able to lead people and not only make some tough decisions, but stick to them too. In order to get her to that point where she is genuinely able to do those things, I have to test her style of leadership in sticky situations. I test her faith in the relationships she has around her and I have to make her lose. . .a lot. After I put her through the wringer, she is no longer a selfish princess who runs away from things, but is instead a woman who stands to deal with them.
Sometimes the plot arc’s job with a character’s mental state is less to do with defining it so much as it’s to do with testing their established beliefs. I think of 12 Years a Slave, where the protagonist already has a sense of himself. His surroundings and material things that make up his life as a free man (living in the North, being with his family, having his own income and free will, etc.) are suddenly stripped from him as he’s smuggled into the slave trade. He’s forced to try and hold onto his mental state of being a free man while his plantation owner is condemning him to life as a slave. In his predicament, he could very well abandon all hope and his free man state of mind and stay a slave. Instead, the story is about his journey to escape which is full of tests abound.
Writers and characters share that parallel of having their mental states tested. Each day is a new battle for us to fight. There will continue to be good days and bad days. That dichotomy is part and parcel of the writing trade, I think. It makes sense though, right? Because how can a writer have empathy for a character if he or she can’t even understand what it’s like for things to not go smoothly? If you can’t empathize with your characters, there is no way a reader will. I still prefer the good days though! When the bad days come, knowing that I’ve made it through the same kind of rutty feeling before is almost like having a shiny, magical bauble I can pull out of my back pocket to grant exactly one wish: Keep going.