This blog was featured on 08/27/2016

Finishing the writing of your book and finally putting it to bed, the thrill of holding your first advance copy and having it in the She Writes Press catalogue, should be the perfect excuse for a little self-congratulatory down time before hitting the reset button. But some of us are already dreading the next step--talking about it. 

Why is it that many writers find it difficult to talk about something they know so intimately? I believe it's more than just a bad case of stage fright. For some of us, our words and ideas come from a remote consciousness that we have access to only when we're writing, like the mythical village of Brigadoon that appears once every hundred years. Our invented worlds open up to us when we're at our desks and deep into the process of putting down the words; and even then, only if we're lucky. When we've lost our imaginary world, that's writer's block, and to navigate back to elusive Brigadoon territory can be very tricky. Maybe that's why some books take 6 months, and others 10 years. However long, when our stories are completed, when we've accomplished creating that world, we're able to leave it behind, and it's hard to find it again. 

A sculptor-filmmaker friend told me he experienced a frightening 10-year (Yes!) artists' block, until he awoke suddenly in the night to visualize a fully articulated story, complete with plot, characters and settings and ready to spring to life. That, for a writer, would be a best case scenario, minus the 10-year writer's block. My novel, PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN in WHITE, took a long time, and I like to believe that it had been percolating in a private Brigadoon. 

Years before writing the first line, I had read "The Lost Museum," a groundbreaking exposee by journalist Hector Feliciano on WWII art looting by the Nazis from Jewish collectors and dealers in France. I was fascinated. Meanwhile, as a Francophile and former journalist, I was asked to write a guidebook to Paris, which required visits, research and regular updates that occupied me for the next 15 years. Inevitably, the Paris books became less challenging. I was itching to create something new, but what? One day I heard a very short but moving radio memoir told by an old woman about leaving her first young love in eastern Europe during WWII, when her family escaped to America. Sometime after, without any help from me, these threads of stories I'd found interesting began to work things out together, to become a tale of lost love that pivots on a portrait stolen by the Nazis that takes place in France. 

I had never written fiction. Not knowing how to begin, I started by reading all I could about the Nazi treasure hunt for art in France. I was sure I would use that info for structure and fill in with lots of historic bits. I could have, because truth is at least as strange as fiction, certainly when you're dealing with megalomaniac Nazis like Herman Goring and his art raiders. I read about Rose Valland, the french museum curator and spy, who became a heroine of the Resistance, about the painter Matisse and Paul Rosenberg, the jewish gallery owner who was his dealer. These characters all served their purpose, providing the buttress for the novel's "real" characters, the fictional French family of art collectors that I must have met in my Brigadoon. During the writing process, the fictional characters developed and reacted on their own, showing me their mannerisms, loves, fears, how they interacted as family. They became so interesting that I had to cut back on the historical narrative to make room for them. They simply took over, so that the historic characters became comparatively minor. I would lie in bed dreaming about where  they would go and what they would do next. They became as much my reality as daily waking life…until their story was told.

That's when something happens. You've completed your work and with the advance copy in hand, you open the book, excited to reread and reacquaint yourself with old friends. But with every page you have to ask yourself, "Did I write that? Really? Those sentences don't sound like me. Where did these scenes come from? Who came up with these characters?" 

Does anyone have a better explanation than Brigadoon?

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  • What a delightful post! To an extent, I have experienced this from time to time. I return to MSs I have laid down and wonder where that story came from when I first started it, and where it is in my unconscious/subconscious now. At the moment, I am practicing my promotional skills and maintaining a platform with my published gardening book. I have a reading and an opportunity to sell copies of my book on Sunday. But I have revisited these MS's and hope that they do reside in some "Brigadoon" of their own deep down in my subconscious..and wonder how I can access that in my dreamtime. Part of me knows that I need to be done with my gardening book to allow myself be in the space of re-entering a more active relationship with those MSs (perhaps one at a time) once again to make progress with them...and see what happens from there.

    I must admit that there was a post on Facebook that my husband recently came across that made me think of the longer of the 2 MSs a seed that could be a detail I might decide to write into the story once I begin courting it again.

  • DJ Geribo

    Hi Susan,

    I have indeed shared the experience as well. Actually, I have had the experience in the middle of writing, as if my hands have been taken over by some internal force and I must type what is being dictated to me. Seriously, I just finished my first middle grade children's novel and as I was typing, I remember saying out loud, "What!??!?! Where is this coming from?" I had no idea where the story was taking me and where it would end up. I did have a vague idea of how I wanted it to end but the trip there was almost completely not my own.

    I think this is a fascinating topic and if I would guess, I'll bet others share this experience. I just read a wonderful book for writers "Why We Write" and a couple of the authors mention the muse guiding them, or Brigadoon, or whatever we each choose to call it. I think when we struggle or are blocked, it is because we are trying to wrestle with this inner guide and are trying to force our way onto the guide that, if we just let go, will bring us to where we need to go with each story we write.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Susan,

    I had to laugh when I read your post. It took me back to some fanciful musings I've had since I was very young. You see, I started out as an artist, a real artist, one that draws and paints? My drawings and paintings were always very realistically drawn; quite detailed.  I remember being amazed that after I'd completed a picture I'd leave it for a day or two and when I'd see it again, it "appeared to have changed". I would grin and tell myself that in the night ELVES must have come and redrawn, fixed, it so it was better. Because it never looked like what I have left the day before or that I had ever done it in the first place.

    Well, this carried into my writing years much later. I'd tell my husband after I'd finished a book and read the published copy months later...who wrote these words, who wrote this? Who created these characters, surely not me? Doesn't sound like me. Sounds too good. Ha, ha. Elves in the night perhaps? Or the writing fairy? I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Guess not.  Nice post.