Listen, Step Back, and Trust Your Gut (or: How I Wrote My Latest Story)

I thought it might be fun today to talk a little bit about my creative process, and to show you what my latest short story, “Quiet Neighbors,” looked like when I started writing it. This isn’t something I’ve done before, but as I work to make a better routine for myself and eventually, hopefully finish a novel, I think it might actually be helpful to take a better look at how I’m currently operating.

So, first thing – I never really plan ahead, and I usually don’t know what I’ll write about when I open up my laptop and get started. Sometimes, a setting will come to me first. With “Quiet Neighbors,” it was a suburban neighborhood, newly built, without much space between houses (or privacy between neighbors). Sometimes, I’ll hear a voice first. When this happens, I listen. I always like to write from a character-driven place, and so if I’ve got a strong character from the get go, I feel like I’ve already got a head start on the work to come. When “Quiet Neighbors” started to take shape as what it eventually became, it was the narrator’s voice that compelled me to write. I wanted to know more about that character, and how that character perceived and interacted with the world.

Second thing – I try not to force a story to work. There’s lots of advice – and it’s good advice – about forging ahead and writing past blocks, but I find that if a story isn’t flowing, I’m not telling it the right way. When this happens, I like to take a step back, a few days away, and just give my brain time to think and process. In the case of “Quiet Neighbors,” I actually loved what I was building when I started, but something just wasn’t clicking. And so I started to look at it differently, and pretty quickly, things fell into place, I think as they were always meant to. I don’t mean to say that I never push through, and that every story has to flow easily for me actually finish it, but if my gut tells me it’s not right, I trust it.

And now, because I’m sure (or at least, I hope) I’ve made you curious, here’s what “Quiet Neighbors” looked like when I started it. It became something I’m really proud of, but it certainly didn’t start where it ended up, and I have to say, I couldn’t be more pleased about that.

*************

“The Quiet Neighbors”

There are two things you should know. The first is this: We liked them. They seemed like a bright young couple.

They moved in on a rainy day at the beginning of April, one of those gray, not quite cold days when you can feel the spring in the air. We heard the moving truck before we saw it, clunking down the wet pavement, the hiss of rain-slick tires.

We missed the MacKinnons. They’d lived in the big house at the end of the cul-de-sac for ten years before they moved, raised their children alongside all of ours. They hosted a Christmas party every year, they always put out the best Halloween candy and they could be relied on, you know?

Their house sat on the market for longer than anyone thought it would. Almost ten months ticked by filled with a string of showings and open houses, and a couple of times, the house went under contract. We all offered to help. We landscaped the garden beds over the summer and kept the front porch swept. We shoveled the driveway when it snowed. We all wanted to see the house sell, not only because we knew it make life easier for the MacKinnons – they’d moved in with her mother because of the cancer – but because we wanted the best new neighbors we could get. We wanted someone who’d take pride in the house and the neighborhood, just like the MacKinnons had, and just like we do. That’s what makes a good neighborhood. That’s what makes a home.

So the moving truck pulled into the driveway in the middle of an early spring downpour. We’d heard about the new owners from the realtor. A young married couple with no children (yet). They both worked in the city but wanted the space to grow. They had one dog, no cats, and oddly, only one car.

“How do they commute to the city?” That was Mr. Grayson to the realtor.

“They drive in together,” the realtor answered, “and they both get to work from home on Friday.”

“Must be nice.”

How do you make time for writing?

This is something I’ve been struggling with lately. My days have been filled with meetings and phone calls, my evenings with emails, and my competing priorities – all important, all very loved and in some cases personal projects – have been keeping me busy. In the middle of all of it, I’m finding it hard to carve out real, significant time to write.

Case in point: I’m writing this on a Sunday night and scheduling it for Monday morning, when I’ll be on the road for several hours.

What to do?

I’ve played with schedules, with different ways of making and looking at to-do lists. I’ve tried mornings and evenings. I’m sort of at a loss, and while I AM getting my writing done, I’d just really like to get my arms around it better.

So, readers and writers, I’m curious. How do you make time to write? How do you balance life’s busy-ness and actually get words on the page? I’d love to hear your techniques, your ideas, your advice…

I’m not pleading for help or anything, but, you know, never hurts to have good tools in the toolbox. 😊

What scares you the most about writing?

Someone told me once that they wouldn’t be brave enough to write, and that I must be very brave to try. I’ve been thinking about that this week, as 2020 comes to an end and I set goals and dream dreams for next year.

I’m not a very brave person. Truly. I’m afraid of heights, snakes, flying, germs (ESPECIALLY NOW), crowds, ladybugs (Don’t ask. I don’t know either.), and the dark. Yes, the dark. And yes, I am in my thirties.

When I decided I wanted to write – really write, and make a career of writing – it wasn’t out of courage. It was out of desperation. I felt like there was nothing else in the universe I could do, and do as well, as write, and that if I didn’t get my words out there, part of me would just…shrivel up and die. And I felt like I was perilously close to that happening, and I couldn’t let it. I couldn’t lose myself.

I know. It sounds very dramatic. I’m a Leo. And an only child. And a retired theatre kid.

But the sad truth is, writing scares me, too. I figure anything worth doing should probably scare you a little, and sharing my thoughts and my fears and my hopes and my demons with the world is pretty frightening.

The thing that scares me the most, though, more than anything else, is that once I write and put my words out there, they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to anyone who reads them. And once I’ve sent my poems and stories and essays out into the great, wide world, I hope they’ll find the people who need them, who want them, who will love them. But I know the world is not a safe, kind place for stories.

I write anyway. I think that’s the thing about life. You’ll always be afraid, and you’ll live anyway. Boats are safest in the harbor.

But that’s not where they’re made to be. So of course, I’m afraid to put my writing out there. But I do it anyway, because stories are meant to be read. And words are their own kind of magic. And I’d rather use the magic and be afraid than live a life without any magic at all.

What’s your writing routine?

The short answer is: It is not.

I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.

I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.

When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.

“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”

Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.

Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.