Like many writers, I am not known for my practical skills. However, this year I have been trying to bring my unruly garden under control, and it has taught me (or reminded me of) certain lessons that apply equally to writing.
For example, a few days ago I wanted to put up a wooden trellis on the brick wall that runs down the side of my back garden (see photo above). The previous occupants of the house simply put up trellises by hammering nails through the wood and into the wall, but even I know this isn’t best practice. I wanted to put wall plugs into the wall first, then screw the wooden trellis into that.
So I drilled five holes in the wall and inserted plugs into them, then tried drilling holes in the trellis in the same configuration. But even though I did try to measure the distance between the holes accurately, none matched up properly. If I fitted one screw, all four of the others didn’t align. Doh!
But then I saw a solution. With just one screw in place at the top, I could swing the trellis sideways like a pendulum. With the trellis in the correct position, therefore, I drilled a small hole through the trellis lower down, going into the wall as well. I then swung the trellis across and using a larger drill-bit made the hole in the wall bigger, so a wall plug would fit into it. I then swung the trellis back into position, and fitted a second screw in place through the trellis and into the wall plug.
Now, I know that securing a trellis in just two places might not sound ideal, but it is very light and with two screws firmly in place in wall plugs, I don’t think it will fall off any time soon. I’m quite sure that better methods must exist for fixing trellises to brick walls, but I was nonetheless pleased to have come up with this solution.
So what is the lesson to be learned from this? Sometimes we can’t solve a problem just by staring at it or trying to figure it out entirely in our heads. Sometimes – perhaps often – the best thing is simply to do something. By taking action, whatever it may be, new perspectives and solutions will often present themselves.
As a writing teacher, I’ve had students with potentially great ideas for books who simply couldn’t get started. I always say to anyone in this position, if you can’t see a way forward with your project, just do something with it. If you can’t decide how to start your novel or short story, for example, skip to somewhere else in the story and start there instead, and come back to the beginning later.
The much-missed US science fiction author Roger Zelazny (if you haven’t read any of his books, try the astounding Lord of Light or the shorter but no less enjoyable Isle of the Dead) regularly used this method. Before beginning a novel he would often write a scene or even a story featuring his main characters, just as a way to get to know them better. Sometimes this would also suggest ideas to him that he could incorporate into the novels themselves. A few such stories wound up published separately in anthologies, which I guess was an added bonus for him.
So if you’re feeling blocked right now and can’t move forward on a project, try approaching it from a different angle. Write a new scene or chapter, maybe not even one you intend to use in the finished book. Get something – anything – onto the page, and I can almost guarantee that this will help you see approaches and solutions that might not have occurred to you before.
And if you have any better ideas for fixing garden trellises to my wall in future, please do let me know 😉