A Knife to the Throat: Coercing the Muse

Sometimes my writing bores even me, and the words aren't even on paper yet. This is not a good place to be, and usually results in finding ways to avoid writing, until it develops into a full-fledged case of writer's block. That is also not a good place to be. My problem the other day was that a certain scene pretty well had to take place but I couldn't think of a way to make it compelling. Avoidance followed.

Finally I sat myself down and faced the problem. I needed to shake things up a bit, which means I had to throw a new wrinkle into this situation, one the protagonist hadn't seen coming and one that I hadn't seen coming. (I've discovered that the best way for me to surprise my characters is to surprise myself. My mind works in fairly straight lines and I can't seem to come up with plot twists ahead of time.) I dug around for a while, considered various possibilities and then forced myself to pick up a pencil and write. (Yes, I'm old-school. Deal with it.) Sometimes when I'm really stuck, I start out with the simple goal of a single sentence. And then another single sentence. When all goes well, the snowball starts rolling downhill and I'm running to keep up. Which is pretty much what happened the other day. Here is some of the result of my whip-snapping over my recalcitrant muse:

They say familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t know about contempt, but the awed intimidation I felt when I first stepped into the O’Reilly house had long ago vaporized into a fog of not-seeing. I crossed the immense vestibule wondering how I would tell my in-laws about Jessica and who her father wasn’t and who her father might be. I passed unseeing under the crystal chandelier and into the sitting room, lost in my thoughts.

So lost in my thoughts I didn’t see the girl on the white love seat until I was almost next to her, so lost that the unexpected sight of her slammed into me like a telephone pole on a drunken midnight walk, so lost that I had no time to smooth the shock of that blow off of my face and greet the girl with the polite interest called for in such situations. I stopped as abruptly as if the telephone pole had been real.

“Jessica!” The name, hard and sharp, jolted out of me and clattered across the marble coffee table, a pebble thrown by a rude child. And then I saw the photo albums on the table in front of her, Samantha’s six-year-old, gap-toothed grin shining up from them, and I deflated awkwardly into the white wingback chair beside me, too undone to try to make up for my lack of social grace.

I couldn’t speak.

“Vinnie! Are you all right?” Eugene’s voice was sharp with worry. A teacup appeared in front of me and filled with steaming liquid, brown and uncreamed, the way I like it. Two cookies slipped discreetly onto the saucer where the unneeded spoon wasn’t. I don’t know why some people think tea and cookies are the answer to all of life’s unsolved problems, but there are worse solutions. I took the cup and saucer into my hands and gripped them stupidly, staring at the albums.

“Vinnie?” My mother-in-law’s voice broke the spell and I lifted my eyes to the people around me. “I know you remember Jessica Callahan. We met her at the wedding on Sunday.”

My wits returned, a bit belatedly, and I nodded, embarrassed.

“Of course,” I said and pulled out a used smile from my supply of etiquette necessities. She did the same, although the perplexity didn’t entirely leave her eyes.

“I asked Jessica to come see us today even before you phoned yesterday,” Ann continued, “so I was especially pleased when you said you were coming. I decided to make it a surprise for you.” She took a sip of her tea. When she started to speak again, her voice was smiling. “I didn’t expect you to be that surprised.”

I murmured something indistinct about my week and became aware of the tea cup still in my hands. I set it on the table and took one of the cookies, a shortbread wafer coated in dark Belgian chocolate. I sipped at the tea, still too hot on my tongue.

“We were just showing her photos of Samantha.”

It had been ten months now, but Sam’s smile still brought more pain than joy. I fixed my eyes on a painting of a cardinal on the opposite wall and tried to not think of what it would look like if a hawk got it.
— Clairvoyant