“What’s the first thing you do when you’re lost?” our scoutmaster asked us one time.
“Retrace your steps,” one scout replied.
“Get out your map,” said another.
“Yell for help,” replied a third.
“Wrong, all wrong,” said our scout master, a grizzled, humorless WWII veteran at the front of the room. “The moment you realize you’re lost, sit down. Sit. Down. Don’t do anything but sit down. Don’t act right away. That’s how you panic, and once you panic you’re bound to get really lost, and probably injured, and you’ll be a lot harder to find. The moment you know that you’re lost, sit down and think. Sip some water. Eat some gorp, if you have it. Take a few deep breaths, and mentally—calmly—think about where you’ve been and where you might have made a wrong turn. Then if you’re sure, get up and walk—walk—back to where you think you were going. But if you’re not sure, just sit where you are until you can make a good choice, and think about staying warm and hydrated. If you have a whistle, start blowing it…” and the advice continued.
I think about that lesson a lot. The moment you realize you’re lost, sit down. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that it applies to a lot more than wandering in the woods. I think about that any time I’m feeling overwhelmed or directionless, and I’ll do just that. Before I panic, before I act out and do something I’ll later regret, I’ll sit and think about where I might have made a wrong turn.
It can apply to writing. I’ve never really felt writer’s block per se. Either I have something to write about, or I don’t. Even tonight, I sat down ready to write a blog entry, and had a couple of ideas, but instead I sat and thought, then remembered a list of ideas I’d tucked away on my phone. I dug one out, and sure enough, there on the list was the title for this piece. I got lost, I sat, I thought, and here I am.
When writing Togahan stories, I frequently get lost. The plot will meander, or I’ll get to a point in the story where I don’t know the next scene. I’ll take my hands away from the keyboard and think for a bit. Now, “a bit” could be just a moment or a couple of weeks. But I’ll think about why I’m stuck, and what I don’t know in order to continue, then move on to what I need to figure out. Sometimes I need to look up (or create from scratch) a character’s back story, or just their physical details. Maybe I need a map, or a mind map. Sometimes I need to write a five hundred year history. Maybe I need to pause and read one or more books on background material just to get a feel for how characters might react in different situations.* For the current project, before I could start, I vomited ideas onto a hundred sticky notes, then organized them on a giant sheet of cardboard until the story emerged.
But sit down works for other stuff too. At work, I’ll pause before diving into a big project. I’ll mind map if I’ve got too many tasks and can’t pick their priorities. I’ll take a deep breath before dealing with a difficult person. I’m not always successful, and I still make mistakes, but it’s usually when I forget the wisdom of sit down.
And don’t forget that sit down is just a metaphor for pausing. I sit all day at my day job, but as soon as I lose direction or focus, the first thing I do is get up and go for a walk. Often midway through this pause I’ve collected my thoughts and figured out what the next step is.
So yeah, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or lost, or don’t know where to begin, take a break, sip some water, have a snack and just think about what you can do to get back on your path.
And good luck. I’m hope you’re successful.
*Etiquette for Outlaws, by Rob Cohen & David Wollock was highly informative when I wrote A Togahan’s Tale.