Sliding Otter News
January 14, 2012
Serendipity, Inspiration, and the Phoenix
We write about what we don’t know about what we know
You may have heard part of this story before. Some time ago I started working on a novel set in Martha’s Vineyard, my favorite vacation spot. I wrote about marriage, a topic close to my heart personally and throughout my work life. I asked for honest feedback and learned that my characters were lifeless. Each attempt failed to animate them and they refused to be revived, if they ever lived.
I finally decided to put it aside and start a new project about the current predicament of our country, more than a modest proposal. I discussed my plan with my friend Bob who suggested I read Bill Kauffman’s book, Bye, Bye Miss American Empire. His book fascinated me. Then Bob, Bill and I ended up at lunch together.
At one point in the conversation Bill asked me why my novel was stuck. I told him the characters were flat and refused to come to life despite my best efforts. Later he asked my how autobiographical it was. I told him it held a little of me but not much. Then we talked about his writing and the literary and wider world. I give his questions little thought at the time.
That night I awoke at my usual inspiration time, three AM. I suddenly realize what mu novel was missing, Me. My soul. My spirit. The setting was real, The thoughts made sense. The story progressed. But there was nothing of me. The only sense writers have of being alive is that which beats in their chests and flows through their veins. All they have is their experience of life. And I ignored my experience. My characters only live though me and I failed to share my life with them.
A sad revelation but an exciting one! The answer seemed so simple once it arrived in my consciousness. So elementary it made me feel stupid. Yet now I can proceed with a book I thought was doomed.
I learned a few things from this experience. One is that I never know where I will find answers to questions which plague me. Keeping them locked up in my head did not help. Conversing about them gave another writer a chance to salvage years of my effort with two simple questions. Who would have thought that possible?
I learned that sharing my shortcomings and dead ends let a friend lead me out from my cave to see the light of day again. Shades of Plato. This sounds dramatic as I write it, but wasting several years of writing at my age is no small matter. I hope I can help someone else in the same manner.
I learned that feeling stuck is state of mind. There are always alternatives to staring ahead into a dark corner. All it takes is to turn in another direction. What is obvious to others is not always apparent to me.
Life Lab Lessons
ñ Do you feel stuck with any part of your life?
ñ Does it feel hopeless?
ñ Can you figure it out by yourself?
ñ Share your dilemma with someone you can trust.
ñ Try their path if yours is blocked.