Feel your writing is stuck and not moving forward?

In the second of her guest blogs, Kelleigh Greenbrg-Jephcott talks about ridding yourself of fixed ideas in Shedding Excess-baggage: From …

Shedding Excess-baggage:  From Tribulation to Jubilation

Standing on the beach in Queensland’s Cape Tribulation last week (making a Bridport Prize 17-Days-To-Go visual out of shells…) I couldn’t help but ponder the nature of tribulation and the jubilation that can be born of overcoming setbacks.

I had just been told the history of the idyllic site, and how it proved less so for Captain James Cook on 10 June 1770, when his ship scraped a coral reef north east of the cape.  Attempting to navigate towards deeper waters, the ship ran aground, on what is now known as Endeavour Reef.  In order to steer back into the water after this debilitating setback, Cook instructed the crew to shed the vessel of any surplus weight.  Over went the encumbering ammunition, stockpiled for protection— muskets, cannons, cannonballs… All the munitions the crew thought that they had needed for their survival were tossed overboard, in hopes of lightening their load, freeing them from their paralytic predicament.  When they divested themselves of the weaponry they once depended on, Cook and his men freed themselves from the reef that had crippled their efforts.

Is it me, or is there a shockingly transparent writing parallel to be found here?

What writer hasn’t felt ‘stuck’ at some point in their endeavors?  There you are, cruising along, smooth sailing, armed with familiar habits, tricks, laurels, hopes and expectations… And then SMACK!!  the literary equivalent of that treacherous reef is hit, puncturing the buoyancy of your efforts.  Whether it comes in the form of a rejection, discouragement of outside forces, inexplicable self-doubt that can challenge even the most confident of authors, or good old-fashioned writers block— you find yourself stuck, run aground.  Debilitated.

I personally have found, over the course of the past year in particular, that there is great value in letting go of the stratagems and ‘crutches’ I thought were strengths.  The most powerful weapons in my arsenal— or so I thought— were my resilience and refusal to deviate from the path I had set for myself as a writer early on.  I spent my formative years studying drama and screenwriting first at Carnegie Mellon University, later at USC.  While I certainly held a far off, ‘one-day’  hope of writing serious prose fiction, I was extremely clear in the immediate goal I was determined to accomplish— to develop my craft as a literary screenwriter— and felt certain that I best knew the way to get there.   After winning a stockpile of screenwriting accolades, including being honoured by the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, the American Zoetrope competition, twice named a drama Finalist at the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference, among numerous others, I found the career I had assumed would present itself based on such promise failed to materialize.  Despite my stubbornness and conviction, the kind of invigorated literary adaptations I valued were not exactly considered the feel-good movies of the summer…  A heartbreaking near miss with an original cable drama series that I’d almost seen to fruition after five years of labour was perhaps the wakeup call. 

For years I had armed myself with my stratagems, my defenses, donned my armour, convinced I needed only to stay the course, narrative guns a-blazing.  It’s only in looking back that it became obvious that the solution was to shed the encumbering weight of rigid expectations and my ideas of how my writing career would manifest itself. 

In 2006 I had been fortunate to be awarded the Abroad Literary Conference Fellowship to convene in a villa in Provence with an inspiring mix of published and unpublished authors, ranging from the aspirational (me), to the acclaimed— Michael Ondaatje, Alan Lightman, Andrew Motion and Russell Celyn Jones, among others.  It was there I was encouraged by authors I respected to explore my narrative concepts in the form of literary prose.  It gradually dawned on me that perhaps my obsession with attempting to see great novels to cinematic fruition was but a distraction from wrestling with narrative ideas in the form of literary fiction myself.

The seed was thus planted that I might explore developing my prose voice— something I’d managed to assiduously avoid for a decade.  Literary fiction was always sacred territory for me as a lifelong reader and book lover.  It is a craft I viewed as too profound to be ‘dabbled' in.  And so I soldiered on stuck in old  patterns, weighed down by ‘shoulds’ and ‘almosts’.  Until finally, ten years to the month after that significant Provence summer, I decided to attempt to shed my metaphorical armour:  to toss my baggage overboard and brave unexplored territory with nothing but the open shell of an immobile vessel that I hoped I might dislodge and set in motion.  

It was in that moment that I put the craft of screenwriting aside and set about the task of turning ten years of research and procrastination into the novel that would become Swan Song.  Setting off on the journey, buoyed by the support of the six month UEA Guardian Masterclass led by the bold and perceptive James Scudamore, I devoted the subsequent year and a half to the development of both my prose voice and the voice of the novel.  Many days it felt an uncomfortable, terror-filled endeavour, having jettisoned known factors for uncertainty.  This was uncharted territory, for while the disciplines of dramatic writing and prose certainly speak to one another and inform one another, I was forcing myself to develop new muscles and skill sets.  To reach into the unknown and see if I could demand the same excellence of craft in a medium I’d long admired, that I’d feared (and been ’told’ by several naysayers) was an unrelated talent.  What I found was not only did the two disciplines repeatedly converge, I was someone who relished discovering my prose voice in ways I never imagined.  The revelations were well worth the terror.  The work that developed as a result of discarding my old ideas about writing and simply diving in with a spirit of fearlessness far outweighed the risks.  As a result of this process, I came to develop an even deeper understanding of my love for the craft of literary fiction— what I now feel certain is what I should have been writing all along.  

Perhaps were it not for hitting that reef-jam and being forced to toss overboard what I thought I knew and relied upon, I never would have made such a life-altering discovery.  

And so, as I stood last week at the site of Cook’s great tribulation, knowing that he too threw encumberments aside to go on to chart new waters, I felt a certain kinship with the stranded captain, and the notion that sometimes out of tribulation and endeavour, jubilation rises to the surface.

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