Goals. Deadlines. A to-do list that has nothing “to-do” with your current project. How many writers haven’t felt the stress these bring?
Some of this conflict is external (family responsibilities, professional expectations, a pack of starving wolves closing in on your writing cave), and aside from not leaving meat outside your writing cave you can’t always control it. But a lot of the stress probably comes from an internal desire to make good on your own drive and motivation. To feel that ever-elusive sense of accomplishment.
My immediate response in these situations is to rush. To pound out the words with a sledgehammer. To FREAK OUT!
Fortunately, when I take time to breathe, I find that the more my characters and their stories roll around in my head, the more my life and the world pushing in on it enhance the complexities of my plot.
Even so-called “simple” stories have complexity at their heart. Take F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you’ve never read the book or seen the movie, let me give you a quick story synopsis: A poor boy wants a rich girl, so he spends his life accumulating money and status just to find that it’ll never be good enough.
It’s simple. Archetypal. Yet the story takes on new meaning every time I read it because the author let his characters live in his head for years. His story “Winter Dreams” (1922) was a precursor to The Great Gatsby (1925). It also doesn’t hurt that Dexter Green and Jay Gatsby hold autobiographical significance. They come alive because Fitzgerald LIVED them.
If you’ve ever had a story in your head, you know that they never get smaller. They’re like some early-American immigrant family renting space in your attic. Before you know it, they have twelve kids and omnipresent extended family living with them (don’t worry, this isn’t getting racist). You can’t hear every word they say, but they stomp around, talk too loud, and never sleep. They drive you crazy, and sometimes you just want them out. But truth is, if you calm your nerves and listen carefully, you’ll find that the noise they make is from dancing, the loud words are cheers and stories of the old country, and the late nights are because they can’t bear to lose a moment. They can teach you a lot, and if you decide to let them stay, if you nurture them and allow them to take up permanent residence, there’s a good chance that family’s going to be a driving force behind a flowering story. Maybe even one that endures for hundreds of years.
So take a deep breath this Independence Day, and let your stories do the same. Give them time to put down roots so they can be truly free.