MAKING IT TO THE MIDDLE (and learning to live there)

in the lifecycle of writing a story

The architect and systems thinker Philip F. Henshaw (who maintains the remarkable website synapse9.com) has proposed a model for the lifecycle of natural systems which I like to apply to the writing of a story. In Henshaw’s model, a natural system (e.g., an ecosystem organizing itself in a specific environmental niche) spontaneously emerges from the ambient reality, and for a while its level of organization, its ability to grow, thrive and cycle nutrients, ramps up faster and faster, accelerating exponentially. Then the system’s growth starts to level off. It’s still growing and becoming more organized, but the rate at which it’s growing slows and slows until it stops growing altogether and reaches a steady state. You can see this in the growth of a child. A baby’s growth and development proceeds with amazing acceleration at first – think how different a two-year-old is from a newborn – but by the time this child has reached the age of twenty, he or she is leveling off at the steady state of adulthood, which will continue (with luck) for decades. Eventually, like a person in the final act of life, any natural system will start to decline; it will no longer maintain its steady mature state but will gradually, and then more precipitously, lose its organization and finally wink out of existence altogether.

A creative effort like writing a story starts from an unknown source; like an ecosystem, it spontaneously starts to self-organize. This unknown source – call it the imagination – introduces a discontinuity in the ongoingness of thought. An example from my writing life would be the first sentence of Family Resemblances, a version of which inexplicably popped into my head one day while I was driving on the highway. For the story truly to begin four things must come together: character, place, situation, and narrative voice. How they do so is not necessarily known. Once they do, there is, à la Henshaw, a period of exponential acceleration. This is the thrilling initial rush that everybody who does creative work lives for, but that rush is far from the whole process. For a while the story madly self-organizes, seems magically to be falling into place; but sooner or later it passes a turning point, and the pace of the coming-together begins to slow. The turning point comes unpredictably and maybe undetectably, but once deceleration sets in, you know it. It may seem at this point that the process is coming to a premature end, and that’s an understandable feeling, because when any natural cycle ends there’s a palpable slowing before it disorganizes altogether. So when you feel the initial exponential growth process of the story starting to slow down, that feeling can easily cause anxiety. You might start to worry that the story is abandoning you, that you’re not going to be able to write it. The leveling off is hard to deal with until you’ve done this a number of times, because at first it feels like you’ve lost your energy, your momentum, your forward drive. The truth is that you’ve become accustomed to equating creativity with acceleration, and so when acceleration stops you feel as though creativity has too. But it isn’t so.

At the beginning of the writing you feel the rush of “the new and then even more”; this sets up an expectation that the experience of writing the story should just keep being “the same feeling but moreso.” Inevitably, though, it changes to “less of the same and approaching the different.” The mistake is to think it should always be “the same but more” all the way to the end.

This feeling of deceleration, which is an integral and valid part of the creative process, accompanies the arrival at steady state, which is the writing of the middle of the story. Later on, after you’ve been through the whole cycle of story-writing a number of times and have gotten used to the process, you feel the deceleration as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

The reason that the transition to the middle of the story can be so difficult, and the reason the middle can be the hardest part or seem like the hardest part, is that it is different in kind to work at steady state as opposed to working in a state of acceleration. At this point the discipline of writing, as opposed to the high of writing, comes into play. It involves waiting a lot, and trusting the process, trusting the unknown source, being patient, believing that creation will indeed occur even if you can’t predict how or exactly when. There’s a lot of “just put in your seat time,” and an attitude that goes along with that, of believing it will in the end produce something worthwhile.

Writing the middle of a story is something like going down to the shore and gathering mussels to eat for dinner. You keep bending over the rocks in the intertidal zone, looking for mussels amid the seaweed, prying off one here and one there, and it often seems like you aren’t finding enough of them. But you keep working your way along the shore and after a while you stop thinking about whether you’re getting enough; you are just gathering mussels. Eventually you decide to stop, and when you get back to the house and dump your catch in the sink, you find out that yes, you did get enough of them to have dinner.

So, similarly, there are those days when you’re sitting there in front of your half-written draft feeling as though all you’re seeing is rocks and seaweed. But you just have to keep looking anyway.

Later on, once you’ve written the whole story, it feels as though it was always going to work the way it eventually did. You forget what it felt like along the way. As Henshaw says, after a natural event has self-organized and happened, it is perceived as “appearing to have had a direction,” but really it has been “a process of local discovery.” This appearing to have always had a direction is a key characteristic of creative process, presumably brought about by our form of perception, which involves an inevitable making of meaning. But that appearance of direction is retrospective. Along the way, in the steady-state middle of writing the story, you don’t know exactly where you’re going to end up, and that’s as it should be. If you try to tell the story where to end up, you get stuck.

The “steady state” in the middle of writing a story isn’t a situation of unvarying sameness. It has a texture in which local discoveries, moments of decision, irregularly punctuate periods of time where little, or not enough, seems to be happening. The discoveries and decisions mostly aren’t big dramatic ones, but everyday ones; each is a crucial link in the chain, because no link is unimportant in the end. And this includes those decisions that are later reversed, those links in the story that are removed and replaced – they are no less a part of the steady state, no less important to its maintenance than the ones that remain.

In order to do creative process, you must get over your attachment to the rush of acceleration and learn to take satisfaction in putting in your seat time, your studio time, your rehearsal time, your practice time . . . you must learn to enjoy living the process. Paradoxically, in order to get to an outcome you must learn how to stop thinking about outcome, because your process won’t work if you are always focusing on the end product. You MUST be able to enjoy the day’s work in the studio, or maybe it is better to say you must be able to do the day’s work while focusing simply on the day’s work. In the middle it helps to be like an ecosystem, which isn’t thinking about a purpose, it’s just going on functioning.

As another analogy, think about vegetable gardening, or teaching.

It’s not like you don’t set a direction in the first place. You do, when you start a story or you plant your garden or you begin teaching a course. At some point, though, having set a direction, and the event having gotten to the point of self-organization, having matured, you are now part of it, within it, responsive to it. You have a certain humility of knowing you cannot MAKE the imagination do something you program, you cannot MAKE the plants grow, you cannot MAKE your students learn. You’re in this together with an Other whose autonomy you respect and rely upon; in the case of a story this is the imagination – an other whose inner workings are not visible to you, not explainable by you, and without which you are absolutely nowhere, lost. Without the mysterious unconscious workings of the imagination, you write boring crap. Without the mysterious inner workings of living organisms, nothing grows, no food is produced to sustain life. Without the invisible inner actions of the student’s mind, no learning happens no matter what you do as the teacher. We are always depending, at least in part, on things the workings of which we don’t understand.

The final act of Henshaw’s model of natural systems – the decline and decay which precedes ultimate dissolution – also happens in the writing of a story, but only long after the beginning and middle I’ve been talking about so far. The true end of the creative cycle comes not at the end of writing the first draft, but after a further process of revision that may stretch out over a long time. Eventually there comes a point, in fine-tuning a story and especially its ending, where it feels as though there are fewer and fewer choices available, fewer and fewer possible new thoughts to think. There’s more and more of a sense that the world of the story is what it is, what it can only be. The story leaves you, in a way. It doesn’t need you anymore. But this will have to be the subject of a different handout.

Ultimately, after some years, one becomes someone other than the writer who started the story. You can no longer write or rewrite that story; it’s behind you. If something unexpected should pull you back to it thereafter, it will become a different story through a new cycle of creative work.

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You can download this as a Word document here: Making It to the Middle