When Stories Attack

Resistance by Jenna Black

Written by Jenna Black

When I worked a “normal” day job, there was always a very clear delineation between work time and leisure time. Work time was when I was in the office. Everything else was “leisure,” to be divided between whatever life responsibilities I had outside of work, and free time/recreation.

These days, I don’t have a “normal” day job with regular office hours. Every hour of every day is a potential work time, and I find myself working even when I’m not in my home office. I work in the shower. I work when I’m driving. Heck, I even work when I’m trying to get to sleep at night. That’s because my mind never shuts up, and it’s always telling me stories—even when I don’t want it to. The more immersed I’ve become in writing as a career, the more constant the assault has become.

Sometimes, it’s a good thing. When I’m stuck on a particularly difficult plot problem, I know one possible solution for it is to take a shower. Because there, my mind has nothing else to keep it busy, so it starts doing the story thing. I am a captive audience. Sometimes, taking a shower is exactly what I need to push myself past whatever is slowing me down. (Good thing we have a generous hot water heater.)

A time when it’s less convenient is when I’m driving somewhere very familiar. For instance, the (on average) two times a week I drive to and from the studio where I take ballroom dance lessons. It’s about a thirty minute drive each way, and I could practically drive it in my sleep. Which means my mind thinks it has nothing better to do than to ponder stories. Fix existing plot problems. Come up with ideas for future books. Psychoanalyze my characters so I can better understand their motivations and figure out better ways to torture them.

All of which is well and good, except that when I’m operating a potentially lethal vehicle, everyone would probably rather my mind actually be in the car with me rather than dilly-dallying out in la-la land. But hey, I’ve gotten some of my best story ideas while driving, and I haven’t killed anyone yet. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood).

But the single time I struggle the most with the onslaught of stories is when I’m trying to get to sleep at night. I try very hard not to do any writing work at night, at least not when I don’t have to, because I know once my mind starts chewing on a story, it’s going to keep at it for a long, long time. Thinking about my books at night is like drinking a double espresso and then wondering why I’m suddenly so hyper.

It’s incredibly hard for me as a writer to forcibly stop myself from thinking about stories. I’ve been wired for stories since I was very young, and that’s why I became a writer in the first place. But actually, “wired” is a pretty apt word choice, because the energy that fills me while I’m developing stories is like a jolt of electricity, waking every nerve in my body and setting my mind to humming. Which clearly is not a good state to be in when you’re trying to sleep.

One thing I’ve been finding helpful lately is doing some meditation right before bed. I discovered meditation through a wonderful book called The Mindfulness Solution, by Ronald D. Siegel. It’s a very down-to-earth, accessible introduction to mindfulness meditation, and it has done wonders for me in helping to discipline my mind at night and stop myself from running frantically around the hamster-wheel of storytelling.

The question writers are asked most frequently is “where do you get your ideas?” For me, the more relevant question is “how do I make them leave me alone?” Getting ideas is the easy part, even if explaining the how of it is difficult. The hard part is not letting those ideas hijack my concentration at times when I need my mind for something else. Even if that something else is just relaxing.

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From the Tor/Forge February 17th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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