Waiting for an answer - Writers at rest

The art of slow writing - Louise DeSalvo 2014

Waiting for an answer
Writers at rest

Ian McEwan, author of Sweet Tooth (2012), has described how he’s cultivated the habit of waiting until an idea announces itself between projects. “I know,” he says, “that between books I’ll simply wait and see what comes up. This is a process you can’t have, and don’t want, under your full conscious control.” If McEwan forced the process prematurely, his work would be far less authentic, far less complex, far more stereotypical, and far more formulaic. And he might have a far more difficult time completing the book.

McEwan knows he must wait for the right subject. He often has a recurrent dream of sitting at his desk in his study, “feeling particularly well.” He opens a desk drawer, and sees “a novel I finished last summer that I’ve completely forgotten about because I’ve been so busy.” The imagined work is brilliant, and he recalls how hard he worked on it before putting it away. The dream attests to McEwan’s trusting that he’ll never run out of ideas, there will always be another novel awaiting him.

Before beginning work on The Cement Garden (1978), about a group of young people reacting to a terrifying environment, McEwan had “delayed writing a novel for years.” He’d come back to London from the United States in 1976, and he started thinking about writing a novel about “children trying to survive without adults,” but he didn’t know how to begin. “One afternoon as I was at my desk,” McEwan said, “these four children, with their distinct identities, suddenly rose before my imagination.” He didn’t have to figure out who they were: “they appeared ready-made.”

McEwan “wrote some quick notes,” then slept. When he awakened, he says, “I knew that at last I had the novel I wanted to write.” He worked for a year, “paring the material back” to realize his goal of writing a “brief and intense” novel.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in Free Play, remarks that learning patience—waiting for solutions to unfold in their own time—is essential for the creative person. Patience, he believes, will help us “accomplish infinitely more” than if we try to force the process along: “The great scientists and scholars are not those who publish or perish at any cost, but rather those who are willing to wait until the pieces of the puzzle come together in nature’s own design.”

Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing, describes how he adopted the mantra, “WORK RELAXATION DON’T THINK.” For Bradbury, “hard work prepares the way for the first stages of relaxation,” necessary for the creative process. We can’t fail unless we stop working; but we don’t work simply to work, but “to find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.” To do this, we must cultivate a kind of “dynamic relaxation” during which the “body thinks for itself”: “True creation occurs then and only then,” says Bradbury.

Victoria Nelson’s On Writer’s Block is the most important work I’ve read on the role of waiting in the creative act. Making art, Nelson says, isn’t always superior to not making art: “That belief comes out of … [a] production-quota mentality.…” Forcing ourselves to work when we don’t have the answer to a challenge “via a kind of internal Sherman’s march,” Nelson says, “is not always synonymous with artistic victory.” If we force ourselves to overcome “a real resistance,” we might be “prematurely tearing the curtains away from a delicate, half-formed something not ready for the full light of consciousness.”

Many of us try to rush the creative process. But, as McEwan’s process illustrates, and as Nelson asserts, it often takes time “for an imaginative idea to grow to full term in the unconscious.…” If we proceed “entirely by ego command,” we’re likely to subvert “this mostly invisible gestation period.” As writers, we need to cultivate the twin traits of “[s]urrendering and listening” but this will be impossible unless we give up our struggle to control our artistic process, unless we cease engaging in what Nelson calls “a solipsistic master-slave struggle for control over yourself.”

Some time ago I’d finished a good enough draft (nearly ready, I thought) of a chunk of my father book, describing how he pretended to be killing an enemy while he was playing charades with my grandchildren, and how unnerving it was for them. But I knew there was something missing, and I didn’t know what. I had that unsettling feeling of not having found the right way to tell the story that often accompanies the creative process. My first inclination was to continue working until I figured out what to do next. But having read Nelson and others who warn against trying to force a creative resolution, I knew that would be counterproductive.

It took a long time—many months, in fact—for me to see how to move the draft along. I realized that my voice was completely missing from the narrative. I went back to the draft, and began inserting my reactions to my father’s behavior, my recollections of his violence when I was a child, my trying to protect my grandchildren. The narrative was now linking past events to those in the present, and I finally became a character in the narrative when I hadn’t been one before.

I’ve learned that we can’t rush aesthetic resolutions, and that we can’t force them to come when we want them to. We can ponder them; we can write about probable solutions. But an authentic resolution can’t be compelled no matter how hard we work. In fact, we often find the solution when we take time off, when we’re away from our desks, or when we allow sufficient time to elapse. Our work as writers will be helped, not hindered, if we learn to wait.

I now accept that when I don’t know what to do in my work, I’ll feel out of sorts, perhaps for some time. Part of my job as a writer is learning to live with this dissatisfaction. I try to remember that feeling unsettled is a prelude to that moment when I become aware of the solution to a creative challenge.

This often happens when I’m doing routine things—showering, laundry, straightening up the house, walking, cooking, or washing dishes; we often have to let go of trying to find the solutions to our creative challenges in order to discover them. Then, when they arrive, we must learn to recognize that we have found them—I’ve known writers who’ve discounted these intuitive leaps.

I’d initially planned to keep myself out of the narrative to focus on my father’s story. That never felt wrong; it just never felt right. But when I heard a voice that said “You have to be in the narrative,” I knew that solution was absolutely right.

Through the years, I’ve learned that I’m always anxious prior to a breakthrough and that I feel relieved when one occurs. When a breakthrough occurs, it’s often a surprising solution inviting me into unfamiliar narrative terrain, in this case, combining two voices—my father’s and mine—in one narrative. But I remind myself that I’ve waited a long time to arrive at this solution and that it’s inviting me to try something new, to try a form I haven’t tried before.