Paul’s Writing Journal: Sneaking Up on Creativity

Today, I’m writing Chapter 13 of my latest novel. It’s about a nurse who returns home on weekend leave from a drug treatment centre after accidentally poisoning her eight-year-old son. I’m working on the second half of the chapter, the part where Tasha – the story’s protagonist – is attending a Saturday night twelve-step meeting.

I’m following a story outline, but like I do when I begin all my chapters, I revisit my objectives for the chapter, looking for ways to uncover important elements of the story that haven’t yet occurred to me.

My idea of what happens at the meeting are pretty sketchy at this point. I know it’s an opportunity to bring in the perspectives of other people with drug addictions, something that might give the story more weight and scope, but also offer Tasha bits of wisdom on her journey which she must choose to heed or not.

As luck would have it, yesterday I interviewed a professor of counselling psychology at the University of Alberta who focuses on the study of hope. I didn’t interview her for my book. I interviewed her for an article I was writing for my day job (I run a website for family caregivers). But as I sit down to write this chapter in my novel, I realize that many of the points this psychologist made in our interview have huge relevance for my protagonist, Tasha.

And so, I write the first few paragraphs so that they take us inside Tasha’s search for hope in her current, gloomy circumstances. She reflects on lessons she learned from patients she treated as a nurse, who were “inexplicably cheerful in the face of grim prognoses.” At first, she thought they were in some kind of deep denial of their condition, but then she gradually began to understand that they’d moved on from hoping for a nonexistent cure “and begun reinvesting their hope in the people they loved.” She decides there’s something for her to learn from them, even if she can’t quite put her finger on it yet.

I think I’m on to something important here, something that I might have left unexplored if I hadn’t happened to schedule that interview for yesterday. Talk about serendipity.

This isn’t the first Narcotics Anonymous meeting that Tasha is attending. She went to one the night before, where she and other addicts shared their experiences. Although I’ve never attended an NA meeting myself, I know that their meetings can follow different formats. I consult the NA Group Booklet and decide to change things up a bit so that the Saturday meeting follows a Q&A format. I quickly realize that this has potential, not just for keeping the narrative from getting stale, but also creating a situation where a person years on in her recovery answers a question that has been eating away at Tasha: “How do I get my family’s trust back?”

Things are coming together nicely, but I need to take a break. It’s lunchtime and there’s not much food in the house, so I decide to drive to my favourite noodle place just up the road. While I’m at the restaurant waiting for my food, I do what many people do; I pull out my phone. But instead of reading the news or sports, I open up my Scrivener app. (Scrivener is the app I now use for writing my stories.) My manuscript is saved to the Cloud, so I’m able to look at the manuscript right where I left off on my office computer. I don’t intend to do any writing at that moment, but before I know it, I’ve added another paragraph to the chapter. And before I leave the restaurant, I’ve added two more.

Ever since I got this app for my phone, I’ve been pleased by how it’s helped my productivity. Sometimes, sitting down to my office desktop feels like a big production. The white space on the full-sized screen can be intimidating. The surroundings are a little more formal. I feel like I’m telling myself, “Go ahead. What’s stopping you? Create!” It can take me a while to get over my initial inertia. But when I’m out somewhere, doing something else like hanging out for a few minutes on my own at a coffee shop, and I just glance at my manuscript on my phone, I’m often tempted to add a few words, and then a few more. Before I know it, I’ve spent half-an-hour rattling off a good chunk of a chapter. Maybe it’s because the pressure’s off. Or maybe it’s because I’ve found that sometimes it’s easier to catch my creativity if I sneak up on it. 

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