Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Muddle

Ha HA! I made it in under the one month mark. I told y'all that I sprint at the start. It's the middle part that always gets me. I'm quick to jump in, and I'm a pretty decent finish-line sprinter, but somehow I get distracted by shiny objects along the journey, and I have to stop and study them, which is what this blog entry is all about: The Muddle.

So I've been stuck in the middle of the book lately. Writing chapters, backing up, rewriting, backing, rewriting again. Second-guessing myself, questioning my inspiration, my direction and my talent. My friend Giles calls the middle of a story "The Muddle". I think he pulled the term from a screenwriting book, or he might have made it up. He's apt to do either at any given moment. But it fits very well. Navigating one's way through The Muddle seems to be a problem for writers everywhere, and I am no exception. Lately Wildmane has been languishing. I've been sitting in a round boat, rowing listlessly with one oar.

So I was talking to my mother the other day, and she said something to me that sent me straight back to my childhood. She was talking about how she and my sister were doing so well with their diets, and that they decided to take one day to cheat, so they went to Denny's to get a free Grand Slam breakfast. I didn't connect all the dots at first; I was just enjoying listening to my mother's stories, but then it hit me.

Understand that when I was younger, we were very poor. I didn't realize this until much later, and this is entirely due to my mother's constant, positive outlook, no matter what wretched situation we found ourselves in. I remember my mother, my sister, my brother and I subsisting off mother's hourly wage from Kentucky Fried Chicken while she wondered how she was going to pay the rent for the month. That was just one of many minimum wage jobs she held. We moved around a lot, chasing dreams and, I now know, a job that would keep us fed.

My mother has never made a lot of money, not since that day and not now, but her positive outlook seems indestructible, and has been a guiding star for me all my life. She talked about how exciting it was not only to cheat on her diet and get that yummy Denny's breakfast, but also how fun it was to be with all the other people waiting for the same. It was then I realized who would probably have been standing in that line with her during this sad economy. I had visions of the soup kitchens from the 1930s, and it struck me that she was doing it again. This woman, who makes less in a month than I do in a week, finds what is most important about life everywhere she looks. It doesn't matter if she's in a mansion or a soup-kitchen line. She proves every day that it's not what you have, but what you do with what you have. I was humbled, and not for the first time in my life.

I hung up the phone and that image, and my mother's smiling voice, lingered with me throughout the day. I thought of her enjoying the faces of the people outside Denny's, the excitement she had at the smallest things, moments others might consider insignificant, disdainful or even frightening.

Of course I thought about writing, about how I had been stuck lately in The Muddle. Every time I stumble across something that I think is wise, or that I find amazing in some way, I try to apply it to the rest of my life, so of course I constantly apply it to writing. And I thought about how my mother's outlook could help me break past that shifting, uncertain feeling of "am I going in the right direction?" for this story.

And suddenly the answer, like so many answers when you finally stumble across them, was simple. I would narrow my vision, pull back and look at the details of what was right in front of me. I would return to the initial principle that started me on this path in the first place. I threw aside all of my grandiose notions. I threw aside all thoughts of making a masterpiece, of having the adoration of readers worldwide. I threw out the idea that maybe I, too, could some day make something as popular and joy-inspiring as, say, the Harry Potter series. I threw it all out.

So I sat down at the keyboard and looked around at all my characters, standing in line waiting to get into the book. And I asked them, "Where do you want to go today?"

And, slowly at first, but with more vigor as my fingers began to fly, they told me.

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