What role does waiting have for writers?

During the Covid pandemic, we did a lot of waiting, and we still are! We’re waiting to learn if there will be new aggressive variants of the virus. We’re waiting to see if we can safely spend time with family and friends now and in the future without wearing masks. We’re waiting to see if 2023 will give us any relief from the multiple problems that face us a a country and as citizens of this planet. But I have to admit that, as a writer, the act of waiting is not unfamiliar to me. It’s an example of how central waiting is in the writing process.

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Internal vs External Memories

As a writer, I continue to make discoveries about process. Recently I had a dream where I started writing the words “I am four and …..” The rest I can’t recall, but apparently the language was supposed to take me into an important memory. The words may have come from a prompt someone gave me in the dream, but I forget who, and I now forget most of the prompt, though I tried to rehearse it in my sleep

The next morning, I wrote the following:

I am four, and I’m sitting by the window watching birds and wishing I were a bird—that I could fly. And then I see the snow coming down and there aren’t any birds any longer because the snow buries them and everything looks white and the white blanks out the world and I’m afraid because it appears that the white will stay forever.

And then finally spring comes or a Chinook and the snow melts and I see brown and maybe some gold and black earth but it takes a long time before green appears again and at four I don’t know what spring means and I don’t know that there’ll ever be anything but snow because at four I don’t have much of a past or a future yet. I just have the moment and how long each moment seems to be so that everything gets stretched and time goes farther than the prairies and they go on as far as the eye can see.

I hide inside myself waiting for things to change but not knowing they will change. Just living in hope and hope is such an intangible at four it almost doesn’t exist because hope means there is a future and I don’t think about futures and again I wonder if I’ll get out from under the white.

I am four and the light changes on the distant Rockies. It’s summer and now I can see clouds and they’re white but not like the snow. They’re friendlier and I don’t mind their kind of white because it comes and goes and changes shape and will give me a glimpse and sometimes more of blue. I feel I can lose myself in all that blue. It will wrap around me not like the white that blinds and buries me. The blue picks me up and is like a comforting blanket and I can see many things in the clouds like painting on the blue sky. I don’t want it to stop but I wanted the white snow to stop because it was too cold and it felt like I’d never get warm again.

Following the dream’s instructions and writing “I am four” and letting it take me wherever gave me new insight into how different an internal memory is from an external one. Most of the “memories” I write from are based on external events, whether real or imagined. But they usually don’t capture my internal state of mind, which is what really interests. I’ve lived the other and can remember those experiences, but the internal dimension is much more intangible. It’s difficult for most of us—all of us—to remember exactly what we were thinking/feeling during an earlier time.

What I just wrote about snow and white may be something I wasn’t fully conscious of feeling at four. But following my dream’s suggestion by writing “I am four” and letting it take me to another level in myself gave me insight into how different an internal memory is from an external one.

Most of the “memories” I write from are based on external events, whether real or partially imagined. But they often don’t capture my internal state of mind, which is what really interests me. I’ve lived the outer experience and can remember it, but the internal aspect is much more intangible. In the freewrite, I’m digging under the surface and discovering something I had forgotten feeling at four, or that I buried, because it would have caused too much anxiety.



Dear Fellow Writers/Readers

It amazes me that after all of these years spent writing in a variety of genres (novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, essays), I’m still learning about process and other writing-related things. Recently, I’ve been working on what I expect will become another novel. It draws on some of my childhood experiences growing up on the Canadian prairies. Of course, it’s no surprise to anyone that writers use such events in their fiction (and non-fiction), but I find that I get bogged down if I stay too close to the actual material.

When I’m recreating something I’ve already lived through, especially in fiction, it loses its appeal and I don’t feel any excitement in writing it. I write to make discoveries, not just to reinhabit the past. I realize that sometimes we need to revisit past events in order to make sense of them, especially in writing memoir. But in fiction, for the work to take on life for me, I must only use it as a seed that I plant and embellish through invention. If my imagination doesn’t get stimulated and involved, it’s a trudge each day to try and press forward.

In the material I’m currently developing, the main character has similar experiences to mine in acquiring a stepfather at an early age and moving to his farm. However, to recreate certain occurrences from that time bores me, especially when writing fiction. It doesn’t interest me to recreate myself in a character—though all writers do this to a certain degree, parts of ourselves inhabiting all of our creations. I need to step into a new identity and discover what makes this other personality unique.

Once I realized what was happening in my current work, I was able to let go and fly. Now I can’t wait to return each day to the manuscript and discover where it wants to go. The characters and setting are taking on their own life, very different from what I originally envisioned.

For me, that’s the main pleasure of writing in any genre: if I don’t learn something new, then it’s tedious and not worth my time or my reader’s. Writing needs to be about these voyages into the unknown where we make visible what has been hidden. It’s like fishing, lowering our line into the waters of the unconscious and snagging who knows what.