Sunday, August 22, 2010

When a Writer Can't Write by Shirley Wetzel

I was born in Comanche, Texas, but I soon got bored and hopped a train bound for Key West three weeks later, accompanied by my mother and big sister. My dad was in the Navy, and we bounced around the country, finally settling back in Texas.

I started writing as soon as my fingers could hold a pencil, and have never stopped. Most of what I wrote was for my own amusement, but a few years ago I decided to get serious and started submitting personal essays, historical stories, and such to magazines, newspapers and anthologies. To my amazement, I sold most of them. My first love, though, is mystery. Last fall my first mystery short story was included in A DEATH IN TEXAS, published by L&L Dreamspell. I love to travel, and have seen a lot of the world, including Thailand, where I lived for two years, Guatemala, where I worked on a Highland Maya archaeological excavation, Turkey, Peru, and various parts of Mexico. My current work in progress is a mystery titled A Death in Comanche, and it's been in progress a loooong time. I write book reviews for, and sometimes for Mysterious Morgue. My blog address is

When a Writer Can't Write
By Shirley Wetzel

Back in 1996, when I first began to attempt to become a published writer, I started a mystery called A Crime in Comanche. I was going to call it Comanche Moon, but some other Texas author bet me to it, and even though titles can't be copyrighted, I figured it was best not to compete with Larry McMurtry. I started out like gangbusters, sitting down at work (sorry, boss) every morning, putting my fingers on the keys, and letting them fly. I used some of my colleagues to base my characters on, with permission (mostly), and they waited eagerly every day to see what new delight had poured out of my brain. I quickly discovered a problem. While the beginning wrote itself in the proper place – at the beginning of the book – other chapters showed up out of order. After several months, I had a beginning, an ending, and a bunch of chapters that went somewhere in between. The book came to a screeching halt. I just couldn't figure out how to pull it all together, so I put the pages away and worked on other things.

I took writing classes, read, read, and read some more, all kinds of books, dissecting each one to figure out what to do and what not to do. I read books by my favorite authors, mainly authors who wrote the kind of books I wanted to write. I devoured books on writing and tried to learn from them how to get my act together. When I felt bad about my lack of stick-to-itness, I found solace in learning I wasn't alone.

Mark Twain, one of my heroes, had this to say:

"As long as a book would write itself, I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag; but the minute the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures, and conducting its conversations I put it away and dropped it out of min mind. The reason was very simple … my tank had run dry; the story … could not be wrought out of nothing."

Mark understood! It wasn't my fault, it was the book's fault! I found another quote to support my theory, from Howard Waldrop:

"When I was a young guy just starting out, I'd find I couldn't finish a story. Then I figured out the story wasn't ready, so I waited until it was ready and then I wrote it." 

I recently found a small journal with this quote on the front page:
"My muse is like the Texas weather—long spells of drought and despair followed by days of wild, uncontrollable outpourings from the skies." - Shirley H. Wetzel, 24 June, 1996

That's just how it had to be for me, it was obvious. I wrote several essays and articles just that way, and they got published. When my novel decided to finish telling itself, it would do so. Right? No, of course not. My writer friends told me the first thing to do was "put butt in chair." Sit there and write, whether I felt inspired or not. Get something on the page, anything, bad or good, just keep going until you work through the block. I do try, but as Farley Mowat, whose work I do not know, said:

"...[I]f someone tells you writing is easy he is either lying or I hate him."

I acquired some discipline, overcame my inherent laziness, and wrote. I participated in my writing group, got inspired, wrote two short stories for anthologies, a family history, a historical article. Then life smacked me right in the face. My father died, my mother is not doing well, and I have a health problem that is chronic, progressive, incurable … life sucked big time in the past year, and the future is uncertain. So what do I do? I write. Not short stories, not my long-overdue mystery, but blog posts about how life can really suck, because that's where my head is now. When I sat down to write this post for dear Kaye Barley, I didn't know what I was going to say, maybe something about writer's block. I just sat in the chair and put my fingers on the keys, and I don't know if it's good or bad, but it's something.

In searching through my quotes file for inspiration, I found the perfect ending for my story. It applies equally to writing and to life.

"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity." -Gilda Radner -actress and comedian (1946-1989)

Maybe my novel will decide it's ready to be finished, or maybe I'll write another one about something completely different. Or maybe I'll decide to give up fiction writing and do what I do best, essays and historical articles and family histories. I might give it all up for now and go take care of my mother. I might join a clinical trial and help medical science find a cure for what ails me. I don't know what will happen next, but whatever it is, while it's happening or when it's done, I'll write about it. I am a writer, and that's what writers do.


mybillcrider said...

Great stuff, Shirley. You're a writer for sure.

Vicki Lane said...

Wonderful post! So true that sometimes the piece of work just isn't ready to be completed.

Best of luck to you with all your writing!

Patricia Stoltey said...

This is an excellent post, Shirley. Wasn't Gilda Radner's book called "It's Always Something"? And ain't it the truth! I hope you work your way through the tough times and end up on the other side with a completed manuscript, maybe even a memoir?

Many thanks to Kaye for having you as her guest. And I must thank the Nagging Whisper that told me I should log in to Facebook just for a minute and see if there were any interesting links....and here I am.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Great article, Shirley. Not only fun, but stuff I can identify with! BTW, I have a short story in A Death In Texas, too, called Growing Up Dead. A neat anthology put out by two great women-- the L & L Ladies! Sylvia Dickey Smith

Earl Staggs said...

Shirley, since you're a scrapper, I know you're going to beat what ails you and finish that book. When the book comes out, I'll be first in line and I get the first hug. Best wishes.

Shirley Wetzel said...

Thanks, y'all. And Earl, you show up and I'll give you that hug!
I went to the pulmonary doc yesterday and I DON'T have the really bad kind of pulmonary hypertension ... but we still don't know why my lungs aren't doing their job. I'm starting to feel like that first book might just be ready to be finished

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Shirley - great post! and SO glad to hear good news from your doctor!! We'll continue hoping for more good news.
Now. In the meantime - -
Get busy on that book, girl!!!!