Last week, I became stuck mid-chapter of my new manuscript. It was chapter seven and my main character had just met a woman in a park who needed help. She had lost her cigarette lighter, one of those BIC pocket lighters, a red one. My main character retraced the woman’s steps along the pathway and found it on the grass verge. He returned it to her, they had a conversation – and that’s when I got stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to extricate him from the scene. I needed certain things to be said then I needed him to leave and go home. But how? I was bereft of ideas. I realised later that I should have skipped over the scene and began the next chapter or wrote a later scene – but I didn’t think to do this at the time. Instead, I was fixated on these two characters in the park.
I left them there for three days (and the weather wasn’t good). I ignored them. I fiddled with a short story, read, gardened – but I was grumpy, too, and all the while those two characters were on my mind. It was like I’d been watching a movie and put it on pause, or had been talking to someone on the phone and asked them to wait a minute – and days later, the phone was still sitting on the table, the caller still waiting silently on the line.
Then I went for a walk around my neighbourhood. As I walked alongside a park, there, on the verge, was a red BIC lighter. Scout’s honour. Now, as a general rule, I’m not one to believe in omens BUT I scooped up that lighter, pushed it deep into my pocket and pondered all the way home over the significance of the finding. In the end, I decided to interpret it as an imperative to “get back to the story and sort out that scene”.
I had to just keep writing, no matter the quality (it is the first draft, after all!). I know this is the best way to write a first draft – to keep going, don’t ever look back – but I still forget to do this and have to remind myself time and again to put the blinkers on and carry on. I know first drafts are supposed to be messy and not everything has to be resolved.
In my early days of writing, I used to edit as I went. Every time I re-opened a document, I’d start again at the beginning, re-read what I’d written, and edit it to bits. I’d often end up with a beautifully written opening but struggle to get the rest of the story down. I don’t write like that anymore. I have learnt to leave the refining until I have a complete draft, but I’m still learning how to ‘unstick’ myself from tricky scenes. How to push through the hard parts – because writing is a hard gig, but fun, too, especially when life reflects your art and throws a red lighter in your path.