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I have been struggling to write the same story for three weeks. About a week in, I thought it was finished, so I sent the 17-page behemoth off to my trusty writing mentor, thinking she would respond with high praise and a directive to submit it instantly to the most prestigious journal I could find. This is not what happened. This is not even close to what happened.

So I worked on it for another week. There's a well-known joke that circulates among writers, that when asked how his writing was going, Oscar Wilde said, "I spent all morning putting a comma in and all afternoon taking it out." That's pretty much what I was doing, only at the level of the paragraph. But one night at dinner I thought I had a breakthrough. I was very excited, and the next morning I raced to the computer to slam out what I was certain would be a final, stellar draft. This is not what happened.

After several more days, still at a loss for how to proceed, I texted my trusty mentor and asked if she could talk me off the ledge. I estimated it would only take about 15 minutes, not because the ledge wasn't super high or terribly narrow (it was) or because the fingers with which I was clinging to it weren't wet with the sweat of angst and torment (they were) but because if anyone can move me off a scary psychic ledge quickly, it's her (my husband too, but he was playing golf). She agreed to talk, and for a while afterward, I felt calmer. I thought I'd put the frustration behind me and that I would soon move forward again on the story. This is not what happened.

At some point during the alternating states of rewriting and announcing (silently, to myself) that I was never writing again, my mentor emailed to remind me about what Albert Einstein said, that problems cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created them. I loved this. I decided I needed to find a new entry point into my tale, maybe even needed to rethink what my tale was about. Maybe I was stuck because I kept trying to tell the same story the same way, only with different words!

I went to bed believing that my unconscious would solve the riddle of the wayward story. What actually happened was I had a dream about a school bus race in which all the drivers were St. Bernard dogs. I tried to interpret the dream in light of my problem of stuckness — perhaps the school buses represented my educated mind, and it was racing to get to the finish line with an intrepid, but ultimately unqualified, driver at the helm — but this did not move me forward. Plus, I now truly despised writing and wanted to try my hand at something less taxing and obtuse, like particulate chemistry.

So I took Einstein's advice (again) and took a walk with the dogs while gently cradling my story in my unconscious like a baby or a small, hot sun (both of which I know never to look at directly). Then I went to the market, after which I plundered some old letters looking for nothing in particular. I found one letter from 1990 from my old college friend Jack in which he told me he was going to be a dad, which was sweet and nostalgic and made me happy I'll be seeing him later this summer, but it did not move me forward on my story. Nor did eating chocolate, checking Facebook, watching the squirrels' gymnastics through the treetop canopies outside my office window, playing hours upon hours of pickleball, cooking, reading, drinking wine or staring expectantly into the computer screen holding my mouth just so.

While I am still not sure how to proceed with my story, I love Einstein's implication that my unconscious is a sophisticated piece of machinery that can both download a puzzle and upload its solution. I also love the idea that somewhere in the school bus of my mind, there is an able driver just waiting to take over the wheel. Mixed metaphors aside, my trusty mentor has advised me not to be in a hurry to figure the story out.

"These things take as long as they take," she is fond of saying.

Einstein optimistically claimed that failure is success in progress. It's with that notion in mind that I conjure the actor Charlie Sheen, who famously said, as his star was crashing, "Winning!"

Which was not at all what was happening. But it's better to have blind optimism, I suppose, than no optimism at all.

Dana Shavin is the author of "Finding the World: Thoughts on Life, Love, Home and Dogs," a collection of 20 years' worth of her columns, and "The Body Tourist," a memoir about anorexia and recovery. Email her at danaliseshavin@gmail.com, and follow her on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes. More at Danashavin.com.

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Dana Shavin / Contributed photo
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