Weekly Churn 006: Blank Pages

Ahoy! This is the Weekly Churn, where every Sunday I post about what I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about over the previous week.

I’ve spent a lot of time staring at blank pages this week. Or not blank so much as unyielding. For a while now, and by “a while” I mean a few years, I’ve been working on a story called “A Fire in the Snow,” or maybe just “Fire in the Snow.”1 It’s the first project I’ve worked on that integrates some of the experiences I had working in northern Saskatchewan. At it’s core it’s just a scary-monster-in-the-woods story with Lovecraftian overtones, but it’s also about how men bond at work when that work is dangerous and isolated, and in a very small way it touches on the damage that settlers have done to First Nations communities—something that I think is important to address in stories about northern Canada, but also particularly important in one influenced by Lovecraft. I don’t think you can let his racism go unaddressed.

Unusually for me, I’ve had a clear picture of this story in my head from day one. I know the plot, I know the characters and their relationships, I know the story’s secrets. I know the techniques I want to use—I want to use the dense prose commonly associated with cyberpunk to build a sense of dread through layers of physical detail and metaphor. I also want to combine as many mundane details as possible with the supernatural elements to make the emotional stakes as real as possible.

I see all of it in my head with absolute clarity, and maybe only about half of it is working on the page. I’ve written about 4,600 words, a little under half of what I think the story will ultimately require, and every writing session is harder than the last. I know what happens next but I can’t make the scenes work, or get any words on the page that lead me to the next steps. I’ve tried jumping around and working on the scenes that are foremost in my mind rather than in chronological order,2 but those scenes also seem to collapse after a few hundred words. I know that finishing is the hard part for almost everyone, but twenty years ago a story like this would have taken me a month to write, maybe two. I once wrote and edited a story in a week because I saw a contest with a cash prize and needed the money.3 It would not have taken past me nearly three years to write this thing. (And certainly it will take present me longer.) The… blockage, or whatever it is, is starting to piss me off.

I long ago embraced the idea that all writing is editing, in the same way that all film is editing, and these days I’m much better at that part of the job than I am at the first draft. After all, editing is my day job now. Unfortunately I don’t seem to be doing much better on that front with my personal work than I am with first drafts. Some months ago I finished the first draft of a short story (a little over 3,000 words) called “The Deal,” which is a kind of dark comedy about Donald Trump and the “pee tape” mentioned in the Steele Dossier. Shortly before the possible contents of the tape were revealed, web cartoonist Evan Dahm tweet at Trump that he would pee on him for a million dollars. And I, inspired by that one scene in Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning,4 wondered what it would look like if Trump took a regular citizen up on the offer. I decided that it would be hilarious, pathetic, and uniquely terrifying all at once. The story started out fairly light and hopefully a little bit funny, but just got darker and darker and darker, and now it’s just this bleak thing about power dynamics and the abuse thereof.5 It does end with a punchline, but the editing process is just as stalled as the writing process is with the other story.

I have at least five other projects on the go right now, six if you count the review of Narrator that I’m supposed to be writing, plus two projects6 making the rounds for sale and a third7 that sold last year to the Dalhousie Review, which should hopefully see print very soon.

It’s been a rough year, and to say that I’m experiencing some problems would be a bit of an understatement. I’m still learning how to deal with my mother’s death last fall, and I have enormous anxiety about my father’s health. My life feels very destabilized, and I’m spending a lot of time doing things that just make me feel grounded and normal. But that somehow feel more like an excuse than a reasons. I just don’t know what to say when sitting my ass in the chair for three or four hours only produces a hundred words, maybe a hundred words, and most of those will need to be thrown out or thoroughly scrubbed anyway.

I recognize that none of this is exactly new. I’m not the first writer to have this problem. I’m not even in the first thousand, or hundred thousand. It doesn’t make the memory of sitting down every day and banging out five or six hundred words8 with almost no effort any less frustrating. I could do it once, why can’t I do it now? Oh, you could say that I play too many video games, or I watch too much television, and that may very well be true, but when I was writing at peak speed in graduate school I was a full-time student, held down three part-time jobs, watched significantly more television, and also played many video games; yet still I managed to write a great deal of fiction. Having other interests was never an obstacle in the past.

I wrote most of this post on Friday night, so of course first thing Saturday morning I sat down and banged out nearly 500 words in a hair over 45 minutes, most of which I believe can be made serviceable after a round or two of editing. It’s been my most productive day in what seems like months.

I started this weekly series in the hopes that writing would become a habit again instead of an event, that I would be able to sit down at the computer and just work, without having to sit through half an hour or an hour of lost time before being able to put together a meaningful sentence. To an extent it’s been working: I’ve written thousands of words for these posts, and I think some of it has been quite good, or has had some good thinking behind it, at least. It has helped my fiction very little, but it turns out I do get some benefit from thinking through problems out loud, which is the point of this week’s post: perhaps thinking through this problem out loud will lead to some movement.

Next week I promise there will be less whining. I haven’t set up the newsletter mechanism yet because I’m trying to get some design issues sorted. Integrating the signup stuff into this website is possible, but so far not in a way that respects this site’s visual identity. I can’t even make the links orange. That will not do. Anyway, maybe next week. I’ll keep you posted.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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