Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 9, 2012

Boredom and Writing

A former student just asked me what I do when I get bored while writing a novel. Apparently I’d been muttering loudly, and it was too late to claim that it’s all fireworks all the time at my table on the porch. When I find myself wiggling, sometimes I call up the great role models of obsession (which may or may not be a synonym for discipline), such as Marie Curie, who stirred pots of potash for four years, hoping she’d isolate a new element, or Mary Anning, chiseling stone to uncover fossils day after day after day.

Then there is the tried and true Dangling Carrot approach. Local strawberries and an outing with Peter to see Brave, a baby sighting, and some swims were this weekend’s post-writing pleasures. Some people, perhaps the same ones who enjoy pedometers, get small thrills from daily word counts, though enough of my work is cutting to make this rarely work for me. There are tricks: when one section of a book seems tiresome, I’ll switch to another scene. My procrastinating self is gullible enough that when the other me tells the procrastinator she’s getting a break, she hardly notices that I’ve given her another task.

Sometimes I deliberately work on a chapter ahead, then want the one before to look just as pretty. Sometimes it’s about managing size. I can feel overwhelmed, and its cousin boredom, by the sheer scope of things, so it’s good to divide things into chunks, employing corkboards or pink and green paper clips to finesse manageable blocks. In a pinch, one can line up those paper clips, or turn them into star shapes. And let it be stated that the middle of a revision is no time to give up coffee.

But there’s got to be more on the table to keep the prose from turning limp in the ninety or so degrees. I’m revising revisions, and know these characters well. Or do I? Now and then, I’d better put them in some new places or at least scan the rooms they’re in with fresh eyes. Even while trimming, I’d better let them talk longer, perhaps shout, and keep an ear out for something new. But while I stick to cutting, I find that the willingness to let things go does crack open windows. Yes, I love my characters, but just like the real people we adore, it’s great when they surprise us. I can’t hold too tight. I have to let characters I thought I new change clothes, and prose I once thought was shiny crumble, then shape it up again.

My former student, let me call her Deb, mentioned reading Code Name Verity, and how inspired she was by its complicated structure, which included switching points of view. “But I have a suspicion that I should practice the plodding structure first and get good at that before I attempt to Picasso-ize it, right?” she wrote. I don’t know. There’s something to be said for learning A to B to C, but if you’re restless and yearning and can analyze how something was done, I don’t see why you can’t try to borrow a frame. It’s instructive to read Rebecca Skloot, author of  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, on how “structure can just completely make or break something.”

Then again, is the reading and analyzing what makes something work not to be used as a template, but just a necessary vacation for the mind? I was just swept away by State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I’m sure there’s a lot to learn from this brilliant novel, but maybe I just needed to spend some evening hammock time in a world that could hardly be more different than the one in which I spend most of the day.

This brings us back to commitment and high tolerance for process over result, which I know Deb has: she was a weaver in a previous life. There’s a barrel of potash to stir, a rock to chip into with a careful, constrained grip. But one can find surprises in the sentences, and celebrate them when they appear. Marie Curie had to be satisfied with the dream of a new element, and Mary Anning with the glimpse that the world was older than her neighbors thought, but lucky writers get to marvel at the way we can break open or twist a sentence and find something fresh. Maybe we do want to risk changing points of view. Or let the characters who didn’t speak to each other before sit side by side, or brawl, or kiss. Revisions can be a great time to stir in setting. The details of rooms or yards that were decorative perhaps don’t need to be pared, but instead given a context where they add tension (Okay, I did pick up a few things from Ann Patchett.)

Only we can tell when boredom is something we have to endure, and when it might be a sign to shake things up. I do think we have to get down a string of words while sometimes ignoring a desire to make more coffee, or weed the flowerbed we gaze out, or hang out with the dog. There’s that hammock. There’s always another book to read. We’ve got to shut out the siren voices and work, but without forgetting the spirit of play, or taking weird chances. Look under the bed you made of words, open the drawers, check the basement. Maybe there are fireworks after all.


  1. I tend to lose direction with my blog and then I start to lose interest (heaven forbid!). Most of the time the answer is so obvious: go back to what made me fall in love in the first place and that’s going back to the biographies.When I go back to Louisa May Alcott’s life, then the ideas start coming again.

    I do this too when I get bored playing the guitar. I go back to the songs I first learned as a teenager to remind me of why I fell in love with playing it in the first place.

    So I would imagine this tactic would apply that to a longer work like a novel. First though I have to get beyond the “overwhelm” part! And I know you’re supposed to break a big thing into smaller, manageable pieces then tackle each piece. Trouble is, I stink at puzzles! 🙂

    Love reading about your process, I always learn something from it. One of these days (hopefully after a research summer), I will take the flying leap and start my longer work.

  2. Your approach sounds great, and that’s one I’ll have to try to remember, too. I know I’ve done that writing biographical picture books, when I’ve felt there’s way too much to fit into 32 pages. I ask myself why I want this person to be better known, and having a few words as the heart, I can pare.

    So glad you keep finding inspiration for your blog. And you may stink at puzzles (so do I), but really a blog piece is really part of a greater whole, and those small pieces add up. I’m sure knowing that you managed all those different piece will give you courage as you tackle the longer work ahead.

  3. Terrific!

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