Once upon a time I lived in suburban Massachusetts and worked as a temp and raised my children while writing an historical novel. It took me almost a decade of researching and writing and trying to fit my protagonist’s life into the known facts of her time and place. It was hard, challenging work, sometimes overwhelming to the point of discouragement. And I often got stuck.
I fantasized a lot. (It goes with the territory of writing fiction.) Mostly about writing retreats and writer’s colonies. Sometimes I fantasized about building my own writing cabin in the woods like Henry David Thoreau. It would have big windows that filled the place with sunlight and let me look out on my peaceful surroundings, where nobody was waiting for me to fix dinner or do the laundry or take them to soccer practice. It would just be me and the blissful uninterrupted quiet. In my fantasy, the novel would just pour out of me onto the page. I’d become unstuck in a heartbeat for there’d be no interruptions, no demands on my time except for the work itself.
Because that’s what was making me such a slow writer – it was external demands on my time. The problem was other people, other obligations.
Then, five years ago with my children grown and my husband approaching retirement, we moved to Vermont and rented a home in the foothills of the Green Mountains. It’s a lovely little place tucked into the side of a hill surrounded by woods and fields, and even has the remnants of an old apple orchard behind the house. I work in a tree-shaded study that overlooks a meadow and an ancient stone wall. Here I have all the quiet and peace I’ve ever dreamed of. No one but my dog interrupts me. It’s the writer’s idyll that I always dreamed of.
But I still get stuck just as often as I did before.
At first it was simply puzzling. I blamed myself for not working hard enough. I’m a professional writer and I know better than to wait for inspiration before sitting down to write. But no matter how much time I sat at my desk, I could only produce a paragraph or two.
I tried all the tricks I knew – reading the very best contemporary fiction to prime the pump, doing more research, freewriting, and so on. Finally, I wrote a story unconnected to my novel. I found myself more caught up in it than I expected and spent several weeks working on it – much more time than it probably warranted.
When I finished it, I returned to the novel. And to my surprise I found I’d somehow become unstuck during that month.
It’s not really magic. I’m pretty sure my unconscious was still working on the novel during that time. In fact, I think that break was necessary. I need time to gestate, to let my characters and their actions jostle around and bump up against each other and grow. All those frustrating “stuck” times are actually part of my writing process.
The funny thing is, I still fantasize about that cabin in the woods.
Some habits are hard to break.