When you look at the photo of the Morgan Library ceiling above, what do you see? Do your eyes gaze at the intricate pattern, delicate in its grace? Do you notice the daylight filtering through the iron carved repetitive spirals and curls contained in stoic squares? Do you feel the moodiness of the black and white? Does it take a moment for your brain to see that within the swoops and curves, are little birds adding texture to the visual?
Do you approach your writing this way? We envision a huge idea for a writing project, but the details get obscured by the bigger picture and patterns, distracting us from the true story at hand. Sometimes that bigger picture hinders the process by bringing up fear and concern over how a story is going, or how words will come to mold and define an ending that will tie up the lose ends perfectly.
I’m very much like you, my lovely stuck, blocked, confused, successful writer. I get overwhelmed by the big picture and can’t see the hidden treasure behind the pretty patterns I’m creating. Then the second guessing and doubt comes in. I grind to a halt. I lose my way. Then I turn off the computer.
Then I turn on the computer and start again.
Life also kicks up lots of dust, to the point where we don’t see the details or the meaning of why things happen. Sometimes we lose our way because we get distracted by shiny things, like a new job that pays more but provides the same drudgery as the job you want to leave. Or a dress or coat that looks stunning on a size 4 model in an Anthropologie catalog, only to find out it looks like crap when you actually try it on. How about having a crush on a gorgeous person, only to find they have the intelligence of a door knob?
Objects may appear closer then they seem. They can be illusions, until you break them down and create a defined personal portrait to work from. Try character outlines.
Outlining the details of your characters can help the stuck writer not see “the forest for the trees”. Not just in the beat of your story, but in character development. Think of your character and their details. Bring it straight down to the length of their fingernails, beyond the color of their hair, eyes, complexion.
You don’t have to express these particular details within your work, but having this outline on hand can provide a palate from where you can swipe aspects of color and transfer brushstrokes onto your canvas to make characters consistent and vibrant.
Even if you’re writing a memoir or biography, keep that character outline of yourself and of others handy so you can express your personality through the work. Sometimes we don’t see our own ticks and individuality, especially not in the way others do. It’s nice to have a reminder – yes, even of yourself.
Keep writing. Give us more to read, to dream and to aspire to. Don’t let bright shiny distractions make you loose sight of the details that weave the entire story and don’t let it make you stray from the work at hand.
Stay focused on what your heart wants to express. Find the flow, and then ride the wave.
(By the way, “The Forest for the Trees” is the title of a wonderful book for writers written by Betsy Lerner.)