A Rut By Any Other Name . . .

Take a different route to work, or when you run errands.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Haven’t we all encountered this advice before in help-for-writers books?  Yawn, snore, whatever. 

Don’t discount it.  Old advice can still be useful advice. 

The point is–as I’m sure we all recognize–to avoid sticking yourself in ruts.  Not just when you’re driving, but in any aspect of your life. 

It’s your responsibility to keep yourself as creative, fresh, passionate, and enthusiastic as possible.

When you’re a writer, beware the routines so ingrained, so habitual, that you don’t even notice them anymore.

(Okay, I know.  Brushing your teeth before bedtime should be an ingrained habit.  Notice I said beware, as in be aware of, not ditch.)

Writers shouldn’t operate on auto-pilot.  We must observe.  We need to remain focused on our environment–watching and seeing as much as possible.

I tend to be a trifle OCD.  That’s helpful in meeting book deadlines and tracking details when building worlds in my fantasy novels.  It also can leave me in ruts as deep as trenches.

For example, I want the fastest, most efficient way to my day job–meaning a drive encountering as few stoplights and school zones as possible.  Nothing wrong with that.  If I’m running behind because I started plotting while in the shower and lost track of time, then I have to arrow my way across town. 

However, efficiency and artistry are not always compatible.

Life has helped me out.  Recent street construction now blocks my habitual trail, forcing me to detour into neighborhood streets I’ve seldom or never driven before.

Even better, artistically speaking, the detours change from week to week.  So one day I may be passing a string of tiny, ramshackle houses built after WWII with weed-patch yards and the fatigued look that old, neglected houses acquire on the road to becoming derelict.  Look!  There’s a scrawny alley cat stalking prey among the shrubs marking a property line.  Look!  Is that child actually urinating off the front porch?

He’s old enough to know better!  Where are his parents?  Maybe they’re asleep because they work nights.  Maybe they’ve gone to steal identities from mailboxes to support their meth habit.  Maybe they’ve split up, and Mom can’t watch the kids because she has to work.  Maybe Uncle Bobby’s moved in again and hogs the bathroom. 

Now my imagination’s clicking, playing the “what if?” game.  I may never write a story with this setting.  I may simply transfer the experience–using my sense of shock, outrage, and amusement to fuel the emotions of a character in an entirely different scenario.  Doesn’t matter.  My muse is working.

On another day I may be zigzagging through a crummy commercial district interspersed with blocks of tidy 1960s tract houses.  Look!  There’s a crane looming over a house like a Triffid.  The buzz of chainsaws fills the air.  Are they really going to take down that ancient elm?  Why didn’t they cable the branches before it was too late?

And my memories wheel to another decade, when an elm dropped a massive limb on my next-door neighbor’s roof, punching through the kitchen ceiling.  I think of when I hired the removal of a large, hollow silver maple threatening my garage and how the tree huggers on the block emerged like wood beetles to gripe and chastise me.  Never mind that I planted a smaller variety of tree better suited for the site or that I fed the squirrels, wild birds, and field mice copious amounts of seeds and grain; I was forever labeled a Destroyer of the Habitat.

The what if? game starts.  Dialogue and scenes swirl in my thoughts.

Oh, darn!  I’m late for work again.

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