When stuck, write in scenes

When stuck write in scenes_magenta text over lightened image of director's clapperboard on grass leaning against a tree
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The second weekend in November, I hosted my annual Write for Your Life retreat. Three incredibly talented students and I met online for a mix of virtual group and one-on-one meetings to discuss their most pressing stories.

The retreat spans two weeks, but there is a core long weekend, Thursday night through Sunday morning, comprised of those scheduled group meetings. Friday is our writing day. Retreat participants clear their schedules as best as they can and write all day.

And I always write with them.

I look forward to this retreat every fall because it has become such a luxury to take an entire day to write. Should anyone hold in their mind an idea of a writing center director as someone possessed of ample time, boundless energy, and a bottomless well of inspiration supporting her writing practice, allow me to gently dispel the myth. I struggle with writing these days. It started before COVID, but the global pandemic certainly hasn’t helped in terms of relieving my mind of worry so I can focus on making art. I know I’m not the only one. Let me tell you a little about my write-all-day experience, in hopes that it might help other writers in some way.

I began my day the way I usually do: meditation and coffee. I curled up in the big comfy chair in my home office with my mug and thought about what I wanted to work on that day. I’m slowly—and I cannot –over emphasize the slow pace—writing a memoir about the twin traumas of my son’s premature birth and my relationship with his abusive father. The work is slow not only because of my packed schedule, but also because I am taking my time sifting through fragmented and often painful memories. I privilege my wellness over the writing. Process over product, as we always say here at the Center.

So it feels like good progress on both the writing and wellness fronts to be able to return to the work. I sipped my coffee and thought about what I wrote last year on retreat writing day. I got right to work, picking up the thread of an unfinished piece about working at the newspaper while I was still living with this abusive man. That part of the story explores the isolating effects of abuse, how I was being accepted into this work environment, recognized and promoted for my writing, making new friends, and so on...but how having to lie every day about the reality of my home life was such a huge barrier to any real closeness or community with those colleagues.

I wrote 600-700 words and got stuck. I sat and stared at the screen for a while, trying to figure out what came next. I had to stretch, eat something, and take a walk. I do my best thinking while walking, and on that walk, I remembered the advice I have given to dozens of students: if you can't keep moving forward in one scene, if you drop the thread, pick up a different one.

Write a different scene.

On my walk, I mentally panned out on my time at the newspaper. I could stay in the setting, right? (Right.) I brainstormed other significant events and incidents from that setting and time in my life, and used my phone’s Notes app to capture some of the more interesting ones so I wouldn’t forget before my walk ended. When I returned to my laptop after about 40 minutes, I knew what scene I wanted to write and ended up banging out another 1,000 words.

It might not seem like a lot, but for me, it was.

I didn’t continue my story in a linear way, but I did contribute to that story by writing a new scene.

Writers, especially writers of long works of nonfiction and/or memoir, this is some of the best advice I can offer you when you get stuck trying to keep writing along the same path or chronology: be willing to drop the thread and pick up another, related one. Choose a different scene. Stay in the setting, if you must, or find another one. Think about the big picture of your story. What are the themes? What scenes can you write now that exemplify or enhance those themes? Put off connecting your scenes for a later time (stay tuned for a blog post on writing connector or bridge pieces!).

Do I write in scenes because challenges to my time and energy prevent me from fully immersing in the story so I can write a chronological narrative? Or have I stumbled upon a way—not THE way, but A way, a viable way—to write memoir by focusing on scenes and worrying about how to connect them later?

Does it matter which is true?

This is my writing life: I take the advice I offer to each of you about making space for writing within my busy schedule, and I write what I can, when I can. I don’t worry (much) about clear starts and finishes, or where in The Memoir a particular scene might occur. I write the scene, with as much emotional authenticity as I can. I save it. I think about it afterwards, and revise and polish accordingly. My aim is not to produce standalone pieces, but I do consider whether or not a particular piece communicates a “whole enough” truth that its place in the linear narrative need not define its value.

Working this way allows me to keep writing when I would otherwise get frustrated and give up. And if it works for me, it can work for you, too.

Do you ever get stuck in your long story? Will you try writing in scenes? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: When to write on vs. when to write later

Writing in pieces: In defense of fragments over finished products

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