PJ McIlvaine: In The Zone

Now THIS is the zone where we’ve always wanted to be!

by PJ McIlvaine

Writing can be a long, rough, exasperating, never-ending, demanding, heartbreaking slog. Anyone who claims that they were an “overnight” success, ahem, I’d take that with a grain of Himalayan pink salt.

Writing is lonely. The only people speaking to you are the voices in your head. And if you don’t listen to them, man, do they get cross.

Writing is physically demanding. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you may end up as old as Methuselah. I have written through flu, sinus attacks, kidney stones, the kids throwing up in pots beside me, and other untold miseries and tragedies…you name it, I’ve done it, survived and even thrived. I’m not saying I’ve done it well or that it’s easy. That’s a story for another day.

But when you’re in the zone…ahhh, it’s bliss, it’s orgasmic, it’s floating on air, it’s that wonderful, heady, intoxicating zone, and there is no better feeling in the entire world, besides, maybe, a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream or snuggling up to your loved one on a cold winter night or rocking out to John Fogerty. And I’m saying that’s a big freaking maybe.

But the zone, that elusive zone…I never know when I’m going to be in the zone. The muse is fickle and fleeting. But when the zone comes knocking, I damn well know it and I must heed the call. I take full advantage of it because who knows how long it’s going to last.

For I have learned the hard way that the zone has a mind of its own and I ignore it at my own peril. My hard drive is littered with half-completed books, barely begun scripts, and aborted first pages. I allowed myself to be distracted by other shiny new objects. Now I’m older and wiser. I let the zone do the driving. I’m merely the passenger.

So what does being in the zone mean, exactly?

Well, I can only speak for myself, but it’s when I’m seized with an idea to the point of obsession and exclusion of all other ideas. Oh, to the outside world, you seem completely ordinary. You do the routine, mundane chores like laundry and going to the market. Nothing to see here, move on.

But inside…that’s a different story entirely. I breathe it like a forbidden romance. I literally cannot think of anything else, no matter what I do or where I go. It’s branded into my brain. It courses through my veins like a rolling river. I close my eyes and voila, it’s all there, unfolding like a movie: the plot, the characters, the voices, the surroundings, complications, drama, everything and anything. I may not have the entire story fully fleshed out from beginning to end, but I have a general sense of how it goes. I find that writing it down in an outline is NOT helpful and even hinders me. I’ll usually write a paragraph or so, sometimes even just chapter headings as a guide post, but that’s it.

And also with the zone, and maybe this is the most crucial part, it waits patiently, well, maybe not so patiently, for me to write it all down before it disappears like cotton candy in a five-year old’s sticky hands.

When I’m fully enmeshed in the zone, it’s like being on auto-pilot. The words pour out of me, all coming from a higher power, and I dream up with things that later, even I wonder where the hell did THAT come from. The best way to describe it is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I know I’m going to hit land eventually, and I hope that when I do, I’ll be okay, gulp.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust my zone. Now that isn’t to say that when I’m in it that there aren’t ebbs and flows. There are, plenty of them. It might steer me in the wrong direction and I have to make a course correction. Sometimes I’ll write something not knowing how it’s going to play out and then, boom, subconsciously the answer will come to me when I least expect it or when I’m doing something else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a brilliant scene washing my hair or taking the dog out for a walk.

And when I do hit a low point, as all writers do, I just keep writing, even when it seems it’s hopeless, it’s treacle, it’s horrible, I don’t know what I’m doing (add your own reason). I know that eventually, the zone is going to come through if I just keep plugging away to finish the first draft. Once I finish that, the revising, the re-writing, all that is doable. The zone, the passion, carries me until I can type THE END which we all know, really isn’t.

Many people call it different things, for me it’s the zone. But whatever you call it, when it comes, grab it by the tail and don’t let go. And now, if you’ll excuse me, the zone, my BFF, is calling.


Pj McIlvaine is a prolific writer/author/screenwriter/writer/journalist. She has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, and a host of other places. Her Showtime movie, My Horrible Year (with Mimi Rogers, Karen Allen and Eric Stoltz) was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Find out more about Ms. McIlvaine HERE. This article first in her most magical blog.

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