lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

Hoarding and the Fear of Scarcity: A Lesson With Michelle Ross

The ransacked, and sometimes empty, grocery store shelves of late have gotten me thinking about the ways writers hoard. The fear of scarcity can infiltrate creativity as much as anything else. Only rather than eggs and flour and toilet paper, writers might hoard scraps of overheard conversation, scenes they’ve observed outside windows, images, cadences, plot lines, metaphors, and questions. They might hoard those sparks of energy that fuel the creation of stories, poems, and essays.

One piece of writing advice that has stuck with me over the years was this from Cornelia Nixon: resist the temptation to hoard your gems. Resist the fear that if you use those gems up in the piece you’re working on now, you’ll run out after that. If you can work them into a piece you’re working on now, if they make sense there, use them. Don’t ration them. There will always be new ideas, new details, new gems.

That doesn’t mean you should squeeze three metaphors into a single little paragraph, of course. The idea isn’t that you should glue everything you own to one story until that story becomes so heavy and awkward that it can’t take a single step. The idea is to let go of any fears you might have about a scarcity of ideas and inspiration. Ideas and inspiration are all around you all the time, there for the taking. All you have to do is pay attention.

I’ve not personally struggled much with this kind of hoarding of ideas. I usually have far more ideas and scraps than I can possibly use. Even when the well does feel a little dry, I trust that it will soon refill. But I do have a proclivity for a different kind of creative hoarding.

Sometimes I hold off on writing the very scene or moment that sparked my idea for a story—that is, the thing I’m most excited to write. I save it for later while I fumble around with scenes and vignettes that I’m less excited about, that I’m not sure have any place in the story.

Of course, there is plenty to be gained from writing outside a story. Sometimes I interview my characters. Sometimes I pick some random situation unrelated to my story, put my character in that situation and write to see what happens. A lot of times bits of these writing-outside-the-story exercises make their way into the story. But even if they don’t, they’re never a waste. Writing outside the story is useful when I have written all I know of the story and have hit a roadblock. Writing outside the story is being pro-active.

But when I hoard the parts I want to write and write random nonsense instead, this is an act of avoidance.

Fear of failure drives avoidance to some extent. I think here of a writer letting her novel idea become crushed beneath a pile of research. She holds off on writing the story because she wants to do adequate research to get the historical details or science details or what have you correct. The risk is that the story idea may wilt if she doesn’t write it now. She might find that after all that research, the story has no more momentum.

But fear of scarcity plays a part in avoidance, too. That is, sometimes there’s a part of me that worries the initial scrap of an idea is all I have in way of a story and all there will ever be. Once I write it, what then? Don’t I need to come up with the story to go around the scrap before I begin writing? Won’t the idea just crumble apart if I write it now, just as it is?

There are situations in which holding off on writing something makes sense, whether because the project is big or because I’m productively working through the story or structure in my head before I begin or because I’m working on multiple projects and I can only do so much at once. But in other cases, I need to work out the idea through the writing, and I need to tackle it head on, and I need to do it now or else risk losing that spark of energy altogether.

If I stop fearing scarcity and trust in the little gem of an idea, and write it, the process of writing might just lead me to where the story wants to go next.

Exercises:

  1. If you have a scene or a story or even just the exploration of a particular image or setting or character that you’ve been avoiding writing because you aren’t sure what to do with it, how to make it into something, just sit down and write it. Trust in that little gem of an idea and the writing process to show you the way forward or at least to open up some new possibility you haven’t thought of yet.

 

  1. If you’ve hit a roadblock on a story, try to find your way forward by looking closely at what’s already there. Make a list as you reread what you wrote. Write down anything you want—anything that’s important in the story, anything that strikes you as underutilized, anything curious, anything at all. The list can be themes, objects, characters, settings, images, metaphors, particular words. Perhaps something on this list can point you in the direction as to what to write next.

 

  1. If you’re avoiding writing something because you don’t know which direction to go with it, then confront the problem head on by brainstorming a list of alternatives. Pick your favorite three or four or however many, and write all of them. Or just write until you hit upon one that feels right. If that ends up being the first one, then you don’t have to bother with the others.

 

  1. I read in the New York Times recently that some of the world’s greatest recipes were born in times of scarcity. Not having what we need to make what we usually make forces us to invent. We find new ways to combine odds and ends that we hadn’t thought could go together. If the pandemic and being housebound has you feeling a scarcity of inspiration, then start rooting around your pantry to see what you do have on hand. If you don’t already keep a journal, start. I’m not talking about anything time intensive. When I’m feeling uninspired, a simple assignment of jotting down 5 items each day can be enough to get me feeling abundance again. Those items might be observations, overheard conversation, thoughts, sentences from articles or books I’m reading. There are no rules. The idea is to start to see what you already have. Keep this up, and it won’t be long before you’re inspired to making something out of these items.

Michelle Ross is the author of the short story collection THERE’S SO MUCH THEY HAVEN’T TOLD YOU (Moon City Press 2017). Her second story collection, SHAPESHIFTING, is forthcoming from Stillhouse Press in 2021. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.