I have a lot of ideas in my head, but transferring the moving images and chattering characters to words is more difficult than I’d like.
For the month of July, I challenged myself to work through Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass and actually do the assignments. The class is only four hours long… I could “complete the course” in less than a day. But to actually put the elements to work? I needed to follow the assignments.
This went really well for the first couple days. Face your fears! Make a goal! But on day three, we were tasked with making three lists, choosing an element from each list, and writing a story. When I think “writing” I think in the terms of novels. I made my lists, picked my topics, and immediately shut down. For a week. I completely broke down… like what are words? How do I do the typing? What does story? Who is character? I don’t understand.
I’ve been out of school and away from creative writing classes for the better part of a decade. The only prompts I’ve done for years have been in the style of my Fifteen Minute Ficlets, which have been my writing prompt go-to since high school. It let me expand the words in my head, and gave me a lot of freedom. Suddenly, this MasterClass was telling me that this was my prompt:
“Write a story about Gemma Hein, 16 y/o high school dropout farm worker with the inciting incident MC wakes up on a grassy knoll with no memory, a backpack, and a cryptic note and pull inspiration from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
Okay. I know this is in part my fault. I made this list. The specifics are my fault. I can imagine a magical realism world where young Gemma is alone in the world, never knew her father, and suddenly there’s this huge fortune left to her and someone in her father’s life will stop at nothing to take it away. So she flees to the woods and is cared for by seven lovely witches until she finds the strength to fight back.
A lot of other people (according to the class discussion) did really basic lists, like “Italian woman” and “the water is running” and … well, I did my third list right. All points of inspiration and reference. They all have written short stories that they’ve pasted into the discussion for review.
And I couldn’t. I froze. It took me a week to write anything down, and when I did, I immediately made Gemma older. And I only wrote about 600 words. Each word was a struggle. I know nothing about working on a farm. Did you know that if you plant tomatoes the right distance apart, you don’t have to weed them because they’re leafy and shaded enough that weeds can’t thrive? That’s what the internet told me.
I feel like I know everything about tomatoes now, guys, but I actually know nothing.
In my memory, I don’t think I’ve ever frozen at prompt before. I feel like I’m usually brimming with ideas. I have a Reminders list on my iPhone with 36 different ideas for stories – some are opening paragraphs, some are just character names. I have more ideas than I know what to do with. So why is Gemma’s such a problem?
I’m not sure. And I’m not looking for pity here – I just wanted to share this as a story. I think, I believe that other writers have stood in this same spot, feeling frustrated and alone. I have half a first chapter, riddled with struggle. I makes me wonder… can I just… not write now? Have I never been able to write? Is it this story, or all the stories? How long have I been deluding myself? Am I deluding myself?
Being a creative is confusing and difficult.
I’m stubborn as anything, so I’m pretty confident that I’ll keep plugging away at Gemma’s story. Very slowly. Like a sloth. Because it’s a mountain I now need to overcome. And it’s Mount Everest, where people actually die on the peak and you have to step over the dead bodies to get to the top because they’re still clipped to the line and it’s gruesome and horrible. Sometimes, writing is gruesome and horrible.
Nevertheless, I persist.
Has writers block ever hit you like a brick in the face for an assignment? I’ve always delighted in how easy it’s been for me to find a story and write it, even if it’s a hot mess in need of editing. If you’ve got stories about when you came up short, I’d love to hear them in the comments!