Natalli Amato is a freelance writer, a former assistant to the editor of Rolling Stone, and the author of two poetry collections: On a Windless Night and Burning Barrel (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press). Currently, she is working on her first novel.
It was late last August when I heard a voice inside my head. It was a stranger's, but she introduced herself: the main character of the novel I would now be writing. She was a compulsive sharer. The Oasis b-side playing in the background? That was her favorite song. The purple smock I put on in the morning? She thought I was aging myself. The line of communication seemed like it would never close. I wrote a chapter. Then I wrote another. And another. And another. I followed the old saying: strike while the iron is hot. I pulled up Microsoft Excel and wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline. Once-blank journals were now teeming with details. Summer bled into fall which faded into winter and I surprised myself with my progress: I finished act one of my novel, and somehow I'd sidestepped the minefield that is writer's block. My beloved outline was there to carry me through act two. Until it wasn't.
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingways gives us this advice on how to make progress in our writing: "The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck." I made a point to shape my writing life around this idea. Not only does it create an inherent sense of safety when you show up the next time to fulfill the old "butt-in-chair" adage, but it also gives a writer permission to write in quick spurts and still feel productive. Writing this way gave me permission to quit while I was ahead.
Soon, I was no longer ahead. My main character's voice was still clear and I still knew where I wanted her to end up. But it was turning out that she had a different way of getting there than I had planned for — which, given her rebellious teenage existence, I shouldn't have been surprised to learn. Like all impatient teenagers before her, she wasn't giving me directions. She was tapping her foot and sighing as I wrote, saying not that, not that, not that, not THAT!
Here was the writer's block that I couldn't face down. This was not fatigue. I could not bargain a chapter out of my brain by offering myself a ThredUp online shopping spree afterwards. I put my butt in my chair every day because I wanted to. (Really.) What I didn't want to do was put my face in front of my blank screen and admit that I just didn't know how to move the story forward.
This resistance to the unknown drove me away from my story. First it was for a day or two. Then it was a full week. Did it turn into two? I hesitate to admit that it did. Until this point, the things that had kept me away from writing this novel were the 8-hour work day that would jump into 10, or an evening bottle of wine with my partner. Things that prevented a night’s worth of writing but didn't prevent me from doubling up the next day.
It was in this state of limbo that I applied for a stay at the Rockvale Writers' Colony a few months out in advance. Let the novel rest until then, I told myself. It's okay. You don't have to write a single new scene until you get there.
If that self-talk was honestly in line with my desires, it wouldn't have necessarily been bad advice. But it was rooted in fear. And besides, my main character couldn't just disappear for three months and meet me in Nashville when I planned to become magically unblocked. Stubborn, silent, and tired — she was still very much present.
That's when I tried something different. Forget butt in chair. We would go for a walk.
When I say we, I mean myself and my notebook and the fictional girl who now occupied a great deal of my brain. We walked without an agenda. We walked in silence. Then with headphones in. Maybe I would write nothing for the day, but I wouldn't fill my would-be writing time with errands or Twitter or brunch. I honored my would-be-writing time with a walk. For most of these early walks, I heard nothing but the mourning doves who recently took up a residence in our neighborhood trees or the sounds of my own breath. Then, over time, that changed.
One day, I heard the song that my character was playing on her iPod as she walked to her friend's house while trying not to cry (and crying anyway).
This fact climbed into my mind through the window I'd left open. What has been said to her that triggered these tears? I did not know. What I did know was that I now had a glimpse — just a glimpse — into a scene, and that it felt organic for the first time in weeks.
Here is something I need to admit about myself: I am lazy and I like to do things the easy way. Once I had this one good experience, I wanted another. I changed my routine to allow for more. After that first fruitful walk, I went home and wrote a scene — a scene that made sense, a scene that I was happy with. That alone left me more invigorated to put my butt in chair the next day. Instead, I put feet in shoes. I went for my walk, and like the day before, I walked until I found something, and wrote afterwards.
Find something I did: a line of dialogue from a minor character that — once I sat down to actually write it into my draft- went on to set the tone for a small yet crucial scene. This time, I learned something important. Not every walk would yield a here's-the-scene-I've-been-missing realization. But if I walked long enough with a clear mind committed to staying in the present, to simply walk and breathe and be, I would glean something useful. Following this routine, I walked my way into, through, and out of, act two of my novel.
You can, too.
I don't know what will come to you when you walk. Maybe the air temperature on your skin will place you momentarily in your character's body. Or you'll pass a couple running and think my character would hate those people, followed by something more specific (and true): my character would glare at those people because she wants to be in a relationship like that. Maybe you walk around the block a dozen times and nothing presents itself for you to use, except for the pride in knowing that you honored your time and opened your mind. If that's the case, be ready to put your feet in shoes the next day. And the next.
Because the more you make it a habit to be in the world — not as a planner or an analyzer or even a writer but as an open window — the more you will find inspiration coming in to meet you on the tails of the breeze.