How Do I Get Back into a Story?

Quoth Anonymous: “I know I should write every day, but with my job and life, I just can’t. It’s hard to get back into whatever I was writing if I’m away for a few days. How can I dive in again?”

Mermaid at Weeki-Watchee, photographed by Toni Frissell for Harper's Bazaar, December 1947
Photo by Toni Frissell, published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1947

I was about to start this reply by saying, “Yes, in a perfect world, you’d be able to work on that story every day,” but the more I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that really is a perfect world. There’s something to be said for taking a step back for your subconscious to do some work…but not for too long.

My best stories seem to come to me as a kind of dream, a state of absorption where I write quickly and instinctively without much doubt. Some people call that a “flow” state, and it’s easy to begin believing that anything written OUTSIDE that state is too difficult or not going well.

To me, the issue is really how to return to the fictive dream of your story, sinking back in so that distractions go away and you are able to once again feel what the next reasonable story moment should be.

I’m not great at doing that, but here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Expect some amount of gear-grinding when returning to a story and be patient with it. The first couple of days are likely to feel a little rough, but they’re only going to feel worse if you pause the project again.
  • Commit to one project at a time. I once thought that I could write several stories at once and just dive into the one I “felt” the most at a given moment, but that generates a lot of fragments that never quite get finished. Tell yourself that one way or another, you’re going to finish this story, even if it’s lousy.
  • Use physical cues to get back into the mindset of working: a certain place, a certain time, a certain desk, a certain word processing program. It’s possible to get TOO attached to the tools as an excuse not to write when they aren’t available, but you need something that tricks your brain into shutting out the world and getting to work.
  • I’ve found setting a timer to be useful, telling myself that I can do nothing but work on the story during that time.
  • Meditation has helped me as well, believe it or not. Take a few moments with your eyes closed and mentally immerse yourself into a creative space. I even have a mantra of keywords to remember in my work, like “Immersion. Performance. Voice. Specificity. Detail.”
  • Sooner or later, you’re going to have to open the document or notebook where the moribund story lives. This is a great time to read through as much of it as you can to get back into the sound of its voice and the rhythm of its sentences. Reading it aloud can help with this, and so can retyping a few paragraphs of the story or re-writing them out by hand.
  • One trick that almost always works for me at the beginning of a session is to write, “So what the fuck is going on?” at the top of a page and answer my own question: summarizing the story so far, mulling through any challenges, talking through where to go next. It sounds silly, but I think you fix writing problems by writing AROUND them.

A lot of that probably sounds self-indulgent, the kind of thing that whiskey-drinking real authors would say is too precious, but for me, the key to creating a good story is feeling it, role-playing my way through it, committing to it with total absorption.

I think the number one thing to remember is not to expect to dive into a story in thirty seconds, whether you worked on it yesterday or a month ago. Imagine yourself settling deep into the pool of your work, letting it surround you and become your reality for as long as you can.

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