The second hyphenated word in the history of this blog, and a blatantly foreign one. I mean, how can you see this and not think, “is this English?” Well yes, ladies and gents, this is English, but obviously not originally. Cul-de-sac means either a street or passage closed at one end (better known as the ‘dead end’), or a route or course leading nowhere. It derives from - you guessed it - French. There a ‘cul-de-sac’ was used as an anatomical term in the 18th century. It literally means ‘bottom of sac’. The contemporary English meaning of a street with a dead end was taken on in the 19th century. But let’s get back to English.
It always annoys me when in action movies they use a cul-de-sac. You know the feeling: there is a wild chase, and your heart is beating wildly, and the hero/heroine is fleeing for his/her life until he/she miscalculates and turns in a street with a dead end. Because obviously the hero/heroine cannot avoid the actual confrontation. Sometimes, if the hero/heroine is lucky, there will come a deus ex machina and he/she will be magically hoisted in the air by a mysterious force, or will suddenly disappear. Or he/she will be beaten into a pulp and there’s a sad moment. Cue the violins.
As you could probably derive from the corrosive sarcasm in the previous passage, I’m not particularly fond of cul-de-sacs, and not just in fiction. Because in real life they can be dreadfully annoying as well. You know the feeling: you’re starting a project, and it’s genius and amazing and you believe that this project will solve all your problems, you will finally get the respect you deserve and you will finally be loved. You start with buckets of enthusiasm, convinced that you will make it to the end no matter how many obstacles will be thrown in your way, because you are brave and valiant and you will see this through.
Then comes the first obstacle. You are a tiny bit annoyed because people do not see the obvious brilliance of your scheme. But you persevere. They will come around in the end. Then comes the second obstacle. You’re beginning to grumble, and just a tiny trickle of doubt is starting to leak in your mind. Maybe this project is just a little too much work for what it’s worth. But still you persevere, because you believe that now you’ve started, you have to see it through, especially because you’ve told everybody that it will be amazing, and you don’t want them to think you’re having doubts. Then comes the third obstacle and you start pulling your hair in frustration. This wasn’t at all the way you expected it to be. You’re attempts to make this work are becoming more halfhearted every day and you’re now seriously considering ditching it altogether. Other people be damned. End then, at the fourth obstacle, you decide you’re finally there: the cul-de-sac. You heave a deep sigh and shrug. You tell everyone it just “wasn’t meant to be”.
I’ve frequently experienced this while writing. I have an idea which at the time seems so genius and original that it makes me feel all giddy and electrified. I start writing with a fire in my heart, once I get it down on paper it’s sure to be terrific. Usually this goes on until I’m about halfway. Then I start to have misgivings. The story turns out not to be exactly what I expected. It’s not going the way I planned it. Either the characters don’t work, or the plot is turning a dead end. I scratch my neck and gaze longingly at my computer screen. I pray that somehow, magically, this thing will resolve itself and it can go back to being awesome and brilliant. To my disappointment, this does not happen. I fight with the temptation to throw the story out. I resist the temptation, and file it in the ‘processing’ folder in my writing folder. A lot of stories in this folder have proven to be cul-de-sacs, even though I don’t like to admit it.
In there is a story about a flooded library. The concept seemed wonderful, the characters were vivid and brilliant. I had a vague idea for a plot line, but instead of working this out beforehand, I started writing and expected that it would eventually go somewhere. And sometimes, it does. But not this time. I grumbled, gnashed my teeth and raved just a little bit. I haven’t touched it since then. Then there’s another story with great dialogue and great characters, which I ditched because I once again ended up killing one of my characters, which is a bad habit of mine. Then there’s a story with a very thought-out concept, but no real storyline (I was gonna go for a stream-of-consciousness). Up until now, this did not work out either, even though the concept is really friggin’ cool. You get the general idea: cul-de-sacs are, unfortunately, a regular occurrence in the writing life, however much you want to avoid it.
Now you probably want to hear from me how you get out of such a cul-de-sac. Well, I’m very sorry, ladies and gents, but I do not know. All I know is this: a cul-de-sac is a metaphor. And like its real-life representation, the dead-end alley, there’s not much to be done, unless you have some kind of deus ex machina up your sleeve. If you find yourself chased by a failing project and you can’t force any kind of escape, you do the only thing you can do: turn back. People make mistakes. And it’s not because you happen to take a stroll up the wrong street, that you can’t turn back. And after all, a cul-de-sac can be quite useful. Because once you know how it doesn’t work, you come a step closer to finding out how it does work. Amen.