Recently, I came across a wonderful quote by Jack Kerouac that has me a little unnerved. He wrote, “A scene should be selected by the writer for haunted-ness-of-mind interest. If you're not haunted by something, as by a dream, a vision, or a memory, which are involuntary, you're not interested or even involved.” BAM! Right between the eyes. I think I know why writing has been difficult lately.
Whenever a writer tells a non-writer that they are having difficulty writing, the non-writer asks if you are blocked. I suppose some writers get blocked, personally I have never had that problem. Once a reader asked Ray Bradbury where he got his ideas and Bradbury replied, My problem is not getting ideas, my problem is not tripping over them when I get out of bed in the morning. I love that because I identify with it. I always have more ideas than I have time to deal with them. And now I think I know what the problem is—lately three ideas have been competing for my attention but they are very different sorts of stories and I cannot stay focused on one without being interrupted by another one.
Stories are like children. They all want to be your favorite. They all want all of your attention. When I wrote my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, that story had been haunting me, quite literally, for years. It began when I was a child spending summers in Erie, Pennsylvania, and my uncle would take me down to the docks to watch the ships come in. It grew when I was in college and working the night shift in a diner there. It blossomed when I was in my 30s and discovered that the tavern that was the object of my fantasies had been torn down. But it wasn't until I was in my late forties that I began to write about it.
This was also true for many of my short stories and subsequent novels. These ideas—sometimes instigated by something as simple as a photograph or a newspaper article—nagged at me until I finally sat down, got quiet, and let them take control. For me writing does not empty the well, it makes space for more to pour in and I think lately I have lost the ability to manage the flow.
Over the last few days I read a book, The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo. The book did not get great reviews and yet I found myself totally sucked into it. Naturally, because it was about Boston, my favorite city, that helped. And, among the themes of the book were two of my favorite subjects—Herman Melville and the George Parkman murder. For the hours that I was reading, I was completely immersed in this haunting world in which I have spent many hours on my own. What I realized, as I finished the last few pages, was that I need to be in a state like that to get back to writing.
There is a scene in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff cries out to the dead Cathy, saying, “You said I killed you--haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” It is wild and passionate but it is from such a place that I most love writing. I need to get back to that place in order to write again. I am so grateful that Kerouac and Roseanne Montillo and Heathcliff reminded me that I can go to a place of utter besottment and write wildly—I just have to let myself do it.
Thanks for reading.