What to do when the safari (or your project) winds up neck deep in quicksand

Last week was a hard one. I’d given myself a couple of days to do what sounded like a simple writing job, and I filled hours and screens with words, but nothing worked. Each draft looked worse to me than the one before.

It happens sometimes. Notes that sound brilliant when you take them down seem insipid when you try to spin them into paragraphs. The big ideas that are supposed to tie everything together unravel. Every phrase seems recycled. Mine did, anyhow.

Laboring through the rewrites, I could see myself beginning to criticize every line almost before it was out of my head.

 So it would be tough to pretend that I’ve got the magic goggles that keep me from going snow-blind when my writing shatters onto the page and the flakes begin to swirl. Sometimes I stare at the words on the screen and I can’t make out the shape of anything. I’m supposed to be a writer? Who am I kidding?



     The sign says: "Look out! Quicksand" —in Dutch.


Oh boy. Now we're in deep.

When I was a kid I couldn’t get enough of an old black and white jungle movie in which a bunch of city-slicker explorers on safari stumble into quicksand. The person at the front of the line sinks up to his waist and starts flailing, and the hero behind him throws him a branch and says, “Stay still. The more you struggle, the more this stuff will pull you down.” We know the first guy’s a goner—he was the anxious, whiny one who never listens. And, sure enough, he goes under, thrashing and screaming.

Just to underline the hero’s wisdom, we get the alternate scenario. The safari’s only woman trips into the goo and again the hero yells, “Just listen to my voice. Grab the branch and stay as still as you can.” She does what he says and there’s a big, goopy embrace when he’s pulled her out.

I memorized the quicksand rule, just in case I ever needed it.

And I guess I have. With my mind serving up images of blizzards and quicksand, I’m getting the picture of what it’s been going through lately. I didn’t realize it had been so tough until I saw the words on the page.

It gets pretty mucky out (and in) there

When I’m working with writers, sometimes I’ll ask a couple of questions about a character or wonder about an image or a chronology and the next thing I know there’s a flurry of pages as they pull out versions one through seven and say, “It’s a complete mess. Maybe it was a bad idea to take this on. Is there anything good in it?  I just can’t see it anymore.”

I’m not in the muck of the writer’s mind, so I can look at those attempts without the angst and doubts and confusion of the struggle and experience what’s on the page. I listen for places where the writer seems to be excited, and for what makes me curious. From there, it’s not hard to connect the stars into constellations and feed back to the writer what I see. There are always stars glittering. We both get still, looking at the words, and we begin to see the way forward.

If only I could do that for myself.

Writers who need writers….

I can easily get caught up in the idea that I should be able to power through any rough patch on my own. So I thrash and flail and keep on sinking until it occurs to me to admit that i'm lost, and I need someone to throw me the perspective I don’t have. Someone outside my head, who can see what I can’t.

It's a huge relief to ask for help. I'm positive that what separates writers who keep going from the ones who stop before their best work is done (or sometimes even started) is the presence of trusted writer friends and workshop peers and editors and coaches who help us still the struggle by witnessing our efforts and telling us what they see.

Go ahead. Let someone see what you're trying to do. You don't have to struggle alone. And if you need the branch I'm holding, just holler.

 (Photo by rs photo via Flickr.)