Let me tell you a brief story. A fable, even. A centipede was walking along one day when a frog stopped him. “How do you move all those legs like that?” the frog asked. “I don’t know,” the centipede said. The frog hopped away and the centipede found himself unable to go on as he thought about moving each and every leg. That is the centipede’s dilemma. And that is what has prevented me from writing until recently.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a steer-by-my-headlights writer. I don’t plan ahead. I don’t outline. Before starting I usually have destination scenes—points I think the story will reach—in mind but the route I’ll take to get there is a mystery until I begin writing. That holds true for all of my writing whether it’s academic, personal, or creative. But until a few weeks ago—and even now on occasion—my fiction was stuck at an impasse.
The culprit is easy to identify: my MFA education. Over the course of those two years, reading and writing as much as I did—I’d be curious of the total word count—I learned so much about stories in general and the particular kinds of stories I write that I felt better equipped than ever to flesh out an idea. Character, setting, conflict, to say nothing of other considerations craft books mention rarely and in brief, if ever. (Frame story. Unreliable narrator. Stylistic variation. Attitude toward the fantastic. And so much more besides.)
With the story I’m currently working on, before I overcame that inertia of not-writing, I’d often sit with a notebook open and assault myself with questions: What kind of story would it be—a journal entry, a first-person reminiscence, some kind of hybrid of different forms? Who’s going to be my point of view character? What’s the conflict here? Even after I answered, or ignored, the questions, I still encountered difficulties. How well I knew my characters. Plot holes in need of addressing. The sheer struggle to make the prose decent after so long without practice.
For as much as these issues frustrated me, I didn’t—couldn’t—easily dismiss them because I knew that finding solutions would invariably make the story better. But there’s a definite threshold with writing; eventually you have to stop planning/researching/wool-gathering and just write. Otherwise, you can procrastinate endlessly. Like an object in motion without friction, it’ll keep going unless an external force acts on it. Chances are that external force is, will be, must be you.
I’m not sure how, or if, the centipede ever solved his dilemma. Nor am I sure I’ve solved mine. I expect my learning will at times bubble up to the surface and send me into a fit of doubt. But even if I don’t fix all my narrative problems up front, I’ll never get the chance to do so if I never get anything written. So that’s what I’m trying to do—silence both my inner critic and my inner writing student. They can both speak up later in the process. The story does not need to be perfect, especially not in the first draft. It does, however, need to be written.*
*Thanks to Elizabeth Bear for that bit of wisdom.