Writing About Problems You Don't Have the Answers To

This week, I started listening to the Dear Hank and John podcast while working on shelf reading at the library.  One of the many perks of being a circulation assistant at my library is that we are allowed to listen to music while we’re in the stacks, but I learned quickly, however, that it takes all the power in my being not to laugh out loud while listening to the vlogbrothers give their typical dubious advice in response to typically hilarious questions.

If you’re not a John Green fan, you might not know of the podcast he hosts with his brother Hank Green, or that John is in fact in the process of writing a new book.  An avid vlogbrothers follower, I was psyched to hear John read an excerpt aloud from it some months back during the Project for Awesome livestream, and to find that the new novel John has been laboring so hard over is on a subject very close to home for him; living with OCD.

How has the writing been going?  To listen to the podcast, not super well.  John and Hank took a slight pause during the most recent pod to get serious about a question a listener had posed; is it disingenuous to act differently around different people?  If I change who I am based on my surroundings, then who am I really?

These are the types of questions John has been wrestling with in his new novel, and he took advantage of this question to genuinely ask Hank if he had the answer.

Surrounded on all sides by intimidatingly successful, published books, listening to two successful and/or published creators, I found myself expelling a sigh of relief.

So I’m not the only one.

I’ve written myself into a wall like this more than once over the last several years.  Despite all the character breakdowns, all the outlining, all the Googling late into the night, there’s a certain point in the writing process at which I suddenly realize I have no idea what the fuck it is I’m writing about.

Sometimes, I’m lucky enough for this moment to dawn on me once the manuscript or screenplay is already complete.  More often though, it smacks me at the midpoint, and my work-in-progress and I hit the floor like a load of bricks.

You don’t have to be a writer to have encountered this.  I feel certain all creators experience this at least once during their creative process. Inevitably, even for someone like me who write in genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, the themes we often find ourselves stumbling upon are deeply personal ones.  For the last year, for instance, I’ve been working on a horror screenplay that, originally, was supposed to simply be about a doll that becomes possessed and haunts two teenage girls.

Instead, it’s evolved into a plethora of colorful, personal tangents.  Certain drafts became an exploration of depression, of borderline personality disorder, of being a child of divorce.  But this latest draft has transformed into the story of a mother and daughter at odds with one another.

This screenplay, like most of my completed novel manuscripts, does have a resolution.  But in my mind, it doesn’t feel particularly resolved.  Why?  

I know my theme.  But I don’t have the answer to it.

When we embark on writing something, there’s a question that we should be asking, or that our characters should be asking, and what happens in our story is essentially the answer to that question.

The question can be a simple one.  For example, I pose the question, “Is there a difference between not wanting to be alone and wanting to be with someone?”, in my short film Hold Me Tight.  After my protagonist, Judy, makes an appointment with a professional cuddler, she finds that it’s better to build relationships on genuine connections, rather than searching for affection blindly.

But these questions, or premises, can also be as broad as, “Who am I?  What makes me ‘me’?”

What do we do when we run up against this wall?  What do we do when we realize we don’t have the answers to the questions we are asking our own readers?

For one, keep writing.

It might feel stifling, and useless, and like utter drivel, but do it anyway.  I can assure you, the only way you can be certain you won’t find the answers is if you stop looking for them.  Keep the flow going.

For another thing, do things other than writing.

Writing can only take you so far, so broaden your sources of inspiration.  Listen to a podcast.  Go on a short trip to someplace new.  Read some nonfiction on your topic, or search for essays, articles, and blog posts.  Watch a bunch of TED talks.

Lastly, don’t give up.

Keep wrestling with those questions.  Do some soul searching if you have to.  You could try stream-of-consciousness writing, or meditation, or even going to counseling or therapy.  It might not come easily.  In fact, I can guarantee it won’t.  But don’t give up on the work, and don’t give up on yourself.  No matter how much time it takes, and no matter the outcome, give yourself the space to find the answers you’re looking for.  The best stories often come when we reach our own personal catharsis.

And you can’t rush that.

(Psst... you can find Dear Hank and John here.)




Shai Cotten