The last time I’d made the trip up from Texas to Maine, before losing my grandmother, was for my sister’s spring wedding. Mimi couldn’t make it because she had just been moved into an assisted care home and they didn’t think she should travel. Caring for her at home had become too much for my grandfather. My sister pinned one of Mimi’s cameo brooches to her bouquet, so she was with us in spirit. The doctors thought she’d live for a good long while, but the aneurism ruptured, and she was gone.
I traveled back to Maine for her winter funeral. I hadn’t been in the cold and snow for close to 15 years. It was shocking. I wore my Texas winter coat and everyone in my family laughed at me. My mom pulled an old ski jacket of my sister’s out of the closet so I wouldn’t freeze, because that was a real possibility. I had to go out and buy tights to wear under my pants because it was minus-10 degrees F. When I had to be outside, I ran as quickly as possible from door to door. Mostly I stayed inside.
I was working on a novel at the time. I’d met with an agent a few months before the funeral and began heavy edits on a book I’d already rewritten four times. I struggled to tell the story in a new way and it was beginning to feel hopeless.
At that time, I had done a lot of reading about writers and other creative types, enough to know that sticking to a daily routine helps produce work and stave off creative blocks. My routine to that point was simple. I worked all day and then wrote as soon as I got home. I sat at my desk with a cup of coffee and wrote until I hit 1,200 words. After that, I chose whether to keep writing or not. On weekends I did the same thing. Around 4:30 p.m., I sat at my desk and wrote at least 1,200 words. This routine kept me accountable to myself and helped me produce a steady amount of writing. But it all felt so … well, routine.
When I woke in my mom’s house the day before the funeral, I turned up the thermostat. I added layers of clothing and wrapped myself in a blanket. When my coffee was ready, I sat at the kitchen table and stared outside. I let the mug warm my hands and the steam from the coffee warm my face, as I looked out over the backyard. It was covered in a few feet of snow. The trees that had been small when I was a child now towered so high they hid the neighbor’s house from view. There were sets of animal tracks etched into the blindingly white snow—deer, fox, and dog. It was so beautiful, so peaceful, and so different from how I had seen it as a child.
And in the stillness of that moment my story came to me.
I hadn’t brought my laptop, so I started typing madly on the tiny keyboard on my tablet. The story whispered itself into my ears. The new structure that stitched the narrative together—the one that had been eluding me and keeping me stuck—now came without hesitation. The plot of the novel worked itself out so quickly that I had to stop typing and starting writing it out by hand. I made a list of the scenes that unfolded and played out, dancing from that blank white snowy canvas in the backyard.
When the muse hit before my grandmother’s funeral, I hadn’t even believed in muses. At that point, I believed in steady work adding up to a finished product. But there was something different about that writing experience. The environment, once so familiar, was new to me. The weather was nearly unbearable, yet through the layers I added on the outside, something inside came pouring out.
Changing up your environment is a lot like what our RTC clients do when they make the courageous first steps toward telling their stories. Your environment is your comfort zone. It’s what you’re used to. It’s part of your routine. But sometimes what we’re so used to has kept us stuck in one place for a long time. When an author is ready to tell a story, it takes the ability to change and grow and become unstuck.
When I felt the muse come to me, I was compelled to listen. I started to see how my characters could interact with each other in previously unheard-of ways. I reordered scenes to build tension. In stepping out of my routine, I was also able to step out of a linear plot line. Not everything had to happen in chronological order. “Tease the readers,” my muse said. “Let your readers put the clues together.”
When we write as a team at RTC, we act as each other’s muses. I can personally attest to how incredibly easy it is to get stuck in one way of thinking about your story. But with the team structure and support, RTC can help you discover a new way of telling the same old story. Maybe you want to start at the beginning and tell your experience exactly as it happened from beginning to end. After a while, you might come to realize that a mix of narrative and instruction makes more sense for your chapters. Or maybe you thought your book was about your work life, but through interviews with RTC editors, you realize this story is really about your personal journey.
Working with others who can help you see your work in a new way will help you tell your story. It may not be the story you had in mind when you started, but it will be the story you were meant to tell.