A few years ago, I was contacted by a woman who desperately wanted to write down the story of her mother’s life. She wasn’t sure if the book should be in novel form, or more like a memoir, but she knew that she wanted to bring it into being. At the time she contacted me, though, she was suffering from severe writer’s block. She had tried everything, she told me, and nothing worked. She just couldn’t get herself to write the story.
When she signed on for coaching with me, she told me she wanted to share what she had already completed on the project and asked if she could send those materials over to me. I agreed and then checked my email shortly afterward and was astounded at what she sent.
So far, she had completed:
Multiple outlines of the book
Chapter summaries of every single chapter planned
Character profiles of her mother and everyone else involved
Breakdowns of what every draft should look like when finished
Journaling exercises about her thoughts on the book
When we talked again, she told me that she just couldn’t figure out what her problem was. She had started this project with so much enthusiasm, and now the whole thing felt dead to her. Sitting down to work on the book felt like torture. She was so confused—where had all the fire and vitality for this project gone?
I wasn’t confused at all, because I knew exactly where it had gone—straight into all her planning materials.
What had happened to this woman was that she had been seized with the passion to write a grand story, but instead of trusting the process and making an attempt to actually start writing the story, she had gotten scared, backed off, and poured all her energy into outlines, summaries, and profiles. These items seemed useful and necessary, from a logical point of view, but weren’t really necessary at all. She could have started the story and felt her way along without all those things. And truthfully, even if she had used the most basic of outlines, the story probably wouldn’t have stuck to it anyway. Most stories don’t.
A shaman would have called what she was doing, “creating a token reality.” When we create a token reality, we create a container and pour the life force of the thing into it, in order to work with it on a smaller scale. For example, the people who attend something like Toastmasters are creating a token reality. They are practicing public speaking in a safe space, with a smaller audience, before they do it for real up on a stage in front of a lot of people. This also happens in the therapist’s office, when you practice a confrontational conversation with your therapist as a stand-in for the real person, to see how that might go. You are participating in a reality that is a smaller version of the real thing.
Token realities can be beneficial in this way, because when you pour some of the big life force that’s coursing through you into a token reality, you feel less overwhelmed by the energy. So, you’re still nervous in front of an audience, but not paralyzed. Or, you’re still somewhat upset in the confrontational conversation, but not lashing out. However, when we try to use this same approach with writing, it almost always spells certain disaster.
The reason for this is because, as a writer, you need ALL of the big, passionate, kind-of-overwhelming life force of the story so that you can channel it through you and onto the page. Stories are living things, and they’re trying to cross over from somewhere else, to here. Making the crossing takes tons of energy, and if you dissipate that energy by pouring it into excessive planning, then you weaken the life force needed.
Another, maybe simpler, way to look at it is that when you excessively plan the story and you talk about the story to anyone who will listen, the urgency of the story’s need to be told will drain away. That’s because you’ve already told it. The story itself doesn’t actually care if it makes it into book form. It just wants to be told. If you plan and plot and dissect it to death then you’ve already given it a reality, and that’s all it ever needed. But it’s a token reality, and token realities don’t make books.
Writers most often excessively plan and engage too deeply with token realities when they’re scared of being imperfect, out of control, or messing everything up. All of the outlining, and chapter summaries, and beat breakdowns give writers an illusory sense of controlling the story and “being on track,” and they also are a convenient distraction from the real work, which is surrendering to the big, passionate, kind-of-overwhelming energy of the story that wants to come through them.
Instead of backing away from the energy and taking refuge in planning, it’s more of an adventure to dive right in and start writing. Start at the beginning, or the middle, or wherever. Write a fragment, or an incomplete scene. Don’t keep track of your word count and don’t brainstorm what would be “best” to happen next. Just start writing and see what happens. When you’re tired or you can’t see anything else that’s happening in the story, rest. Try again next week.
You don’t need to take on the big energy of your entire story all at once. Just work with it as it comes, in the moment, and respond to what’s being asked of you by the story at that time. You don’t need to know everything and you don’t need to know how it ends. You just need to know that you’re open to the adventure.
This is how real live stories are born.