When I was a kid, I was an addicted reader. I would often have up to three books on the go at once--one for home, one for school, and one for the bus. I would sometimes close the cover of one book, put it down, and pick up the very next book I intended to read within the same minute.
As an adult with other, ahem, "responsibilities," I don't have time to read that much--fiction, that is. I still read an awful lot, but when it comes to fiction (with which my only self-control appears in the form of abstinence) I have to metre myself--in other words, if I don't have time to read for 12 hours straight, I don't crack the cover.
When I do indulge, I usually emerge from the fantasy world with what I call a "reading hangover"--my head feels a little woogy and my muscles a little stiff from the physical positions required to read for that length of time. And I have this giant emotional letdown that the book is finally over, despite the fact that I couldn't put it down until it was. I usually go through the next day or so slightly dazed as I mull over all that happened to the characters and re-centre myself in my "real" life. (I have sometimes had a similar experience after a particularly moving or upsetting movie.)
As a child, I would remedy the hung-over feeling by immediately beginning the next book. I couldn't really express this at the time, but I thought that the big draw was to see if the problem the character was presented with at the beginning got resolved in a satisfactory way by the end.
That was as a reader. As a writer, the experience is somewhat different.
We are all taught that stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whether it's a 20-minute sitcom, or a 12-hour Lord of the Rings marathon, these three aspects are present. As one writing sage broke it down, in Act One, you get your character up a tree. In Act Two, you throw rocks at him. In Act Three, you get him down from the tree.
Sounds simple, right?
Beginnings are something that most writers or wanna-be writers are pros at. "I know! I'll write a novel about an orphan kitten that drinks radioactive water and has to use it's super-awesome powers of cuteness to save the world from the alien dog race that wants to use Earth as their cosmic fire hydrant."
Okay, not all of the ideas are good ones, but coming up with a problem/scenario that needs to be solved is what most often inspires the words, "Maybe I'll write a book."
Endings can be a little harder, but knowing that the story will, in fact, end when a certain outcome is achieved (even if only because the writer killed all the characters in frustration--I'm looking at you, Will Shakespeare) is usually not that hard to brain storm. (Again, not all the ideas are good ones!)
But, ah, the middle. "Rising action." "Turning points." There are all kinds of terms that describe the middle. I think the most common one for writers to use is "The Big, Swampy Middle."
Last week, I got stuck in the swamp with my new novel, "Finding Heaven". Fortunately, about 30 minutes of looking at the current plot, and brainstorming about what needs to happen in this story, and I realized where I had gone wrong and had come up with the new, brilliant version of my book that is going to be amazing.
Unfortunately, it meant that the first 30,000 words I had already written were going to need to be completely re-worked to allow for the fact that a major problem my character has was now presented in a different part of my story.
Welcome to the swamp.
As a reader, I always thought that the ending was the goal. And it is. But it never occurred to me that it was the well-written middle that actually got me there as inevitably as a cart on a roller coaster track. Because if the writer gets stuck in the swamp and doesn't figure out a way out of it?
Well, let's just say that I am a very determined reader. A book has to be exceedingly bad for me to close it and walk away. But I represent about 5% of the population. If a writer wants to succeed, they need to get good at making vine ropes and hauling themselves out of the swamp. Because the reader doesn't want to read something that the writer was struggling with--they want to read about a character that is struggling to get out of the swamp/solve problems and succeeds. And if 95% of the population is walking away from your book by page 20--never to pick up another one--then the writer is going to need to find another way to be able to eat.
If only our real life could be mapped out by inciting incidents, turning points, and resolutions.
The thing is that we never know exactly where we are in our own story, do we? I'd say more often than not, we feel as though we are stuck in the Big Swampy Middle.
2015 has contained, bar none, the worst experiences of my entire life. It has also contained some amazing ones--experiences I may not have had were it not for the hard ones that preceded it.
As the year closes, it is typical to do a reassessing and mull over what you would like to be different next year. Only there are some things that no amount of New Year's Resolutions will ever change.
The writer in me tells me that I need to restructure my goals. There are things that can't change, and there are things that can. Why not focus on the second category?
And I am. I am not really sure what I want my new life--my new "normal"--to look like, yet. While I am starting to see some sunlight through the clouds of grief, the clouds aren't going anywhere soon. It still rains pretty hard some days. And I still feel stuck in the swamp most days.
But lately, with the reassessing, I have started to see the vines around me. Ways out. And I am only beginning to see that staying in this swamp is a choice I make.
Some days I grab a vine and haul myself closer to the edge.
And some days I let go and choose to sit here.
That's okay. I'll get out of the swamp when I'm ready to, not before. Unlike writing a story, grief can't be "fixed" in 30 minutes of brain storming. It is a process, and a lengthy one.
Are you in a swamp right now, friend? Are you struggling to find a way out? Look for the vines--reasons to keep living life, hope that the swamp doesn't cover the earth. If you look for them, you will find them, I promise.
And while you're stuck in the swamp, here's a little reminder from the midget Jedi master of the swamp of Dagobah:
I am afraid of losing the few pieces of Levi I have left. And yet I know he is not truly lost to me. I need to let go of my fear so I can live, let go of the things that keep me in this swamp.
That doesn't mean letting go of my love for Levi. Only the pain that keeps me mired in a past I can never have back.
I'm finding my way out of the swamp. I don't know how long my story is, but I know that God is directing me to a better place, to be a better person, and I am thankful that ultimately, my life does have a Writer.
May you also see some vines of hope today, friend.