Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Diary of a PhD Student: Taking my protagonist for tea...

Earlier this week my protagonist stopped talking to me. It’s not as mad as it sounds – I promise – but there really is no other way to describe what happened. I was working on a chapter, or rather a section of a chapter, which saw my protagonist interact via a series of text messages with another character – and it just wasn’t working. I pushed and shoved and wrote and rewrote. It could have been writer’s block – whatever that means, if such a thing even exists – but something about this felt personal.

I looked to my protagonist for an answer and found her faced away from me, arms folded, foot tapping on the floor as if to say, ‘Well if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.’

So I did the only logical thing that I could think of. I packed up my protagonist, took her into town, and we had a catch up over a cup of tea.

I’m not really helping the ‘It’s not as mad as it sounds’ argument there, am I? Hear me out, though...

When I wrote the first draft of my PhD book, I spent the majority of my writing time in coffee shops – because I’m a beautiful cliché like that. The whole thing was handwritten – pause for horrified gasps – and because of that I could be fairly flexible about where I got my writing done on a day to day basis. I occasionally moved coffee shops but typically migrated back towards one in particular where the staff would say, ‘Working today?’ on seeing me and, following my affirmative answer, they would then throw two tea bags into my teapot rather than just the one. There is a special place in heaven for these people, of that much I’m sure.

So Gillian and I, in the early days, spent a lot of time talking and writing over tea. And it turns out that on a grubby Monday morning when we were both equally tired of staring at the same mind-map-marked four walls, we both needed a change of place.

I had obviously done something to annoy her because while we’ve had our battles over the last eighteen months, I can’t recall a time when she flat out refused to have a conversation with me – not a conversation, as such, but you know what I mean. It turns out, though, that the Gillian bit of my brain is about as particular as the superstitious writer part of my brain – who would have thought it? – and that after weeks upon weeks of ripping her apart and piecing her story back together in a different order, with new chunks unashamedly wedged in around her fictional life, the old girl was feeling a bit battered – and I think I probably was as well. So we went for tea at a quiet coffee shop in town, and we took a pen and a notebook, and we talked it out.

It was an entirely new chapter that I was working on but between tea, talking, and a little more wandering around than I had allowed myself to do on previous writing days, Gillian and I got a full draft of that chapter penned over the course of Monday. And for the first time I came to appreciate that protagonists, much like the writers who create them, are well within their rights to be delicate little flowers in need of some love on occasion as well.

So whether you want to call it writer’s block or something else altogether, my stellar piece of advice – until I do this again and it doesn’t work – is to take your protagonist for tea. You’re a good couple and you can work it out, you might just need to say a few home truths to each other first...

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