If thou followeth a wall far enough, there must be a door in it. – Marguerite de Angeli, The Door in the Wall
One of the first books that I remember being specifically formative for me in terms of actual writing is Stephen King’s Misery.
Like a lot of people, I went through a period of being obsessed with King’s books, beginning with a series of summer nights down at my family’s lake property in Texas wherein I stayed up until the small hours reading The Shining. One could – and many have – levy a number of very legitimate criticisms at King and his writing, and as I’ve learned more about the craft it’s become clearer to me that a lot of his books frankly aren’t all that great. But I retain the opinion than a lot of his stuff really is pretty fantastic, if often flawed – The Stand, the Dark Tower series (mostly the first three books but yes, I love the whole ridiculous thing) Duma Key, It, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (a massively under-appreciated gem)… I could go on.
A lot of what I learned about writing, I learned from Stephen King, and not just from his slim, lean, wonderful On Writing. I could name a number of writers who first sowed in me the seeds of Wanting to Write, but when I determined that I might actually attempt the business, it was from King that I started to grasp the inner structure and workings of how to put a story together, how to make all the pieces fit and set the thing running. More, from him I gleaned an idea of creation that was at once cautiously mystical and flatly practical, devoid of both the gauzy, fluffy nonsense and the pompous inflexibility which stand as unfortunate features of a number of books about writing. I got useful images from him that made a lot of what I intuited easier to grasp: toolboxes and tools, people digging away in mines. I gained an understanding of the business of writing as far more practical craft and hard work than the base-level possession of talent, or of sitting around waiting for inspiration.
But sometimes you do wait. Sometimes you shove whatever your current project is into the back of your mind and go on about your life. Sometimes you get an idea but you know it isn’t ready yet, or you suspect it may not be. Then you let it be. I’ve found it useful to conceive – heh – of this as a kind of pregnancy; I can feel that something is growing, but it’ll grow at its own pace. I’ll know when it’s ready to emerge, and to try to force it out before its time could kill it before it has a chance to get going.
But sometimes it doesn’t simply emerge in its natural time, and then you have to hunt for it. You have to chase.
In Misery, King describes my understanding of this process as regarding a blank page, waiting to fall into it. That image has stayed with me, because it feels so right; what you need is a way through and into, and you won’t find it by avoiding it. And it’s not fun. It’s painful. It’s lonely and frightening, and I think that loneliness and fear is what keeps a lot of would-be writers dependent on inspiration, the lack of which provides an excellent excuse to quit for the day and do something that isn’t writing.
And then there’s what I tend to experience more than anything else when trying to start a project – and sometimes when stuck in the middle of one – which is a combination of the two.
I’m not waiting to fall through a page – or a screen – and I’m not waiting for something to birth itself. It’s like I’m in the dark, feeling my way along a wall. There’s nothing in the dark with me but that wall – except for the wall, I’m in a void. What I’m looking for is a crack, a hole, a window, maybe even a door. I have no clear idea what’s behind the wall. Maybe I can hear things through it, very faint – voices, music. Maybe I’ve heard rumors about what’s over there, unreliable third-and-fourth-hand reports. The fact is that I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t stay in the dark.
And if I keep feeling along the wall, sooner or later I’m going to find my way through.
That moment, when I find the way through, is difficult to describe, but I think King would recognize it instantly. I think most writers would. It’s a moment of quiet elation and revelation both – not an understanding of the whole story or of the totality or the plot but more that you now see the path by which you might get to the end. You have a way in. The country beyond is still undiscovered, but now you can begin – or continue – the journey. And now the journey doesn’t seem nearly so impossible, nearly so overwhelming.
That moment is one of the moments I’ve come to live for. I had one of them last night. I’m not quite ready to start that particular journey, but I can see the road through the door, and I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. – JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings