Writer’s Block

All posts tagged Writer’s Block

One thing that really, really bothers me is when people, writers, over-simplify the problem of Writer’s Block. Like:

“Oh I just force myself to write and then I do, tralala”.

Or:

“Here’s a list of frufru prompts like “What if you woke up tomorrow as a butterfly – go!”.

I’m not going to say that those approaches don’t work.  Maybe for some people they do.  But Writer’s Block is not a virus you catch and then cure with a “take two and call me in the morning ” prescription.  Writer’s Block is a psychological condition.  It reflects a person’s life circumstances, their frame of mind and emotional state.  Its’ source can be simple (like, oh I don’t know, having work and home and family matters constantly vying for your attention and babies that won’t stick to a predictable nap schedule and snow days off of school that inevitably fall on the day you cleared so you could concentrate on your writing for the first time in MONTHS- just for instance); or, it could be deeply rooted and hard to define, let alone overcome.

Depression, Writer’s Block… Kissing cousins?

Sometimes, telling a writer “Just write,” is like telling a barren woman, “Just conceive.” For many of us, lack of inspiration is serious business that goes beyond a shortage of will power or ideas.  For many of us, Writer’s Block can be downright crippling.

I was given a couple of poetry exercise books for Xmas, the kind meant to help inspire you and get you writing. I only just now cracked one open – it’s been that kind of winter.

I’m very hopeful about getting something from these books; I was introduced to some of the exercises at the writing retreat in October, and went on to use them, successfully, for a week or so after, until the tsunami of real life reasserted itself.  Le sigh…

Instead of sitting down to bang out some proto-poems, though, I found myself snorting at a comment in the first chapter, and ended up here with a mini-rant on the topic of blasé attitudes towards Writer’s Block.  I guess you could say I was “inspired”…

The author starts out by confessing how he wasn’t writing much at all because he had no time and no inspiration.  One of the things he says helped him overcome the problem was making lists of ideas.  This, he says, eliminated all excuses because he could no longer “play the no inspiration card.”

While I can relate to the concept – and let me just say, I do think it’s a good idea, and I do it, too, and it helps – I just have to point out that having a list of “things to write about” is not the same as being inspired.

For me, having an idea – a theme, a setting, a premise, a haiku moment – is just tinder.  Yes, you can’t start a fire without it.  But what else can’t you start a fire without?

That’s right, kiddies.  A SPARK.

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How cool is this picture?

And therein lies the real problem.  The world is full of things to write “about”.  Learning to see them is a skill, like anything else.  It takes practice; writing lists, yes.  Free association.  Observation.  Journaling, recording dreams, people watching, eavesdropping. Recently I overheard someone say, “Once you start thinking about crows, you see crows everywhere.”

Ideas are crows.

But even if you have so many crows you can’t step out of your house without tripping over one, it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not inspired.

Inspiration is another animal entirely.  Inspiration is a non-quantifiable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it, enigmatic THING.  It’s either there, or it’s not.  Inspiration is why I tend to poo-poo the “Write about a time that you were mad,” kind of prompts and the “Just Do It” sneaker philosophy of writing.  Without inspiration, it’s all just tinder.  Or… crows.  Tinder crows.

So how DOES one set their crows on fire (now THERE’S an image for you).  Obviously, the answer to that is different for everyone.

For me, it’s like seduction.  Firstly, I don’t go for just any idea.  I like the smart ones, the weird ones, the ones that most people overlook.  The ones with lots of layers, inner meaning, a Jungian’s fantasy.

Secondly, it takes time.  I like to flirt with an idea for a long time.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes years.  I like a slow burn.

And the final payoff? Let’s just say it’s a magic combination of timing, setting, opportunity, and mood.  And coffee, or a cigarette, or… something to put in my mouth.  I’ll just leave the rest to your imagination.

 

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Step One: Write a List. Step Two: … Step Three: Inspiration.

But that’s just me.  For you, it might be something totally different.  Maybe lists ARE your thing – that neat, orderly, tantalizingly visual representation of thought.  Of… possibility.

Or maybe you’re into butterflies.  I mean, whatever – to each their own! My point is just that, as writers, we are all keenly aware of how personal the creative process is.

 

 

No matter what we write, or how, we invest so much of ourselves in it.  We are all beautiful unique snowflakes and, as it happens, some of us snowflakes have Writer’s Block and it sucks, so shut up with your platitudes already and have some compassion.

 

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My snowflake is cranky when she doesn’t write.

I almost didn’t make it. The GodKing hurt his back last week, the Kinglet is having a rough month at school, and, at four months, I’m still nursing my baby girl. To ditch them all for a sequestered, catered four-day weekend felt terribly self-indulgent. So when a transportation issue came up and I couldn’t find a ride down, I was like, well, I guess I just won’t go.

besides, how could I leave THIS?

besides, how could I leave THIS?

But my husband was having none of it. He was preparing to take off from work and drive me to Lewes himself when, thankfully, my poet friend Phillip Bannowsky welcomed me to ride with him.

Even still, it was touch-and-go that whole first morning. At breakfast I got an email from the Kinglet’s teachers explaining how he was getting kicked out of enrichment class rather than implementing his IEP; in full-on Mother Dragon mode, I’d responded with one of my signature Strongly Worded Letters while simultaneously cramming a bagel into my face-hole. Then I thought I’d lost my purse – spent an hour or so driving around looking for it when I’d meant to be packing and getting ready. (Never did get around to shaving my legs). Found the purse and managed to stuff my stuff into my bags and lug them to the porch by 11, still basically hyperventilating and wondering if I’d be able to relax at all.

I can’t say that I ever truly did – the combination of mommy hormones, social anxiety and over- caffeination had me feeling rather bipolar that entire weekend – but that wasn’t really a bad thing. I experienced some crystal highs on this retreat: getting to know colleagues a little better, starting new friendships, sharing in society with other poets and writers – “the tribe”, as JoAnn called it. People who speak my language, who love words and wordcraft. People who get it.

And I wrote. Not prolifically, but some, which is more than I’ve done in longer than I can say. Though I’ve been very productive in the last year with getting things published, I’ve produced very little new work, for one reason or another. The one thing I’d hoped to accomplish on this retreat, above all else, was to start the momentum again – and that, so far at least, I definitely have done.

Some thoughts and tidbits:

– During introductions on the first night, I mentioned that I’d just had a baby and that I was away from her for the first time. Thus I became known as the one with the baby for the remainder of the weekend. People kept coming up and asking, “So how you doing? Holding up okay? Sleep okay? Did you call home yet? How’s the little one?”

I laugh, but I really did appreciate it. It helped break the ice with people I didn’t know, and kept me “checked in” with those I do, who knew what a Big Deal it was for me to be there, away from my kids.

To answer the questions: I held up okay. It wasn’t as hard as I feared it would be, but it was definitely surreal. I kept thinking, Isn’t there someone I’m supposed to be taking care of? And for the first time in years and years and years, the answer was NO. I was responsible only for ME, having thoughts that were 100% my own. I felt younger, if that makes sense. Like twenty-something me was waking up from a very long sleep – which might also explain the bipolar feeling. But that’s okay! Crazy makes for better poetry.

– TheVirden Center isn’t the Ritz, but it’s perfectly sufficient to a writer’s needs. The personal screened porches were great (mine came with a pet preying mantis, for that extra little poetic symbolism), small but cozy, and Godz, if we didn’t have great weather for it.  Sunny, breezy, cool at times but not cold, and blue skies!

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Works for me!

My only beef about the accommodations were that 1) the nightstand was across the room from the bed rather than next to it, so I had to keep my night stuff (eyeglasses, saline, cup of water) perched precariously on a desk chair, and 2) the handle to my toilet stuck. You had to jimmy it or else it would keep running, which I kept forgetting, so I’d be staring into space trying to write a poem and then realize I was still hearing that damn toilet’s heavy, watery exhaling (inhaling? hmm.)

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shall i compare thee to a toilet’s whooooooooosh…

 

Oh and, 2b) I finally got in the habit of jiggling the handle by the last day, but now I’m trained to it, so every time I flush at home and hear the tank filling up I have the urge to go back and fondle the toilet. Thanks, Virden Center.

– The thing that most surprised me about the retreat is how little time I actually had to write. Part of that was unique to me – I spent an average of two hours a day pumping and storing breast milk, and, really, everything I did had to be scheduled around how long I’d have until I had to quick back to my room to pump again (oh, and did I mention, I got a nasty carpal tunnel flareup from what I thought at first was due to scribbling poems longhand (for want of a printer) but realized later, face-palm, was due to two hours a day minimum of squeezing a breast pump… TMI?) – but between that and workshops and needing to be in the dining room for meals at a specific time, I felt like writing was something that happened in the margins. You pretty much had to skip meals, sleep, or socializing to get any real work done. Being a nursing mom and always always hungry and always always tired, I went with option three, eschewing company except during meals and group.

– Not that anyone was knocking down my door; I felt a little lost at times.

– BUT ON THE OTHER HAND. I relished how open and friendly everyone was. Whenever I stepped into the dining room, there was a moment of “hmmm” – that flashback to grade school or camp or whatever, when all the cool kids bunch together and you wonder if and where there will be a space for you. I can’t be the only one who went through that. – But it wasn’t like that. By any stretch of the imagination.

I made a point of sitting at a different table every time, with different folk, trying to get to know new people, seeing the place from new angles – and for the most part it seemed like everyone else was doing the same. I thought a lot about how small the Delaware writing community is – even people I didn’t know, coming down, I realized I have seen before, or am only removed from by one or two Kevin Bacons. I like that kind of intimacy. It feels good to be a part of it.

– About food: I heard some mumbles about the buffet. This being my first retreat, I have no basis for comparison, but I was impressed with the grub. It was diverse, always something new, with options for veggies and carnivores alike. I thought it was pretty stellar, actually – but, then again, all of my food was cooked for me personally due to my dietary restrictions. Maybe I got extra special treatment, in which case, lalala for me! I loved having grownup food (artichoke hearts! sundried tomatoes) that met my needs that I didn’t have to cook myself. I was bowled over by how accommodating the chef and the staff were – the servers even knew to bring me the honey bear for my coffee by the second night (which I use because I can’t have cream). I felt truly pampered, and I wish I could bring them all back with me to My Real Life.

– Ah, pie in the sky dream.

So those are my impressions. It was an expensive trip, in more than just the cost of registering, but totally, I think, worth it. Coming back to reality this week, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated in a non-cliché way, a way that goes beyond “post-vacation bliss”. I feel as if I finally got a handle on where I am in my craft, in my career. I produced some work that I am proud of – more importantly, I am sharp with intention, the impetus to create more. Plus, I met a host of great people, colleagues, and gained a broader sense of community.

Oh, and gratitude. Thank you, Universe, and you, Delaware Division of the Arts, for sponsoring and, you, Oh Unknown and Unbiased judges, for selecting me as a participant. I am so honored and glad to have been counted among so many hugely talented writers.

It was, in short, really swell.

 

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In which the poet is accomplishing muchly.

I’m meant to be working on my novel today.  I’m all set up in my comfy chair with my laptop and my coffee, but instead I’m turning to you, blogosphere.  Because that’s almost as productive….

writers block

It’s been ten months since I did anything with COVENANT.  Last spring I revamped the outline and rewrote the first few chapters.  I was really happy with the way they turned out – I even included an excerpt in my application for a major award and went on to earn an Honorable Mention over dozens of applicants.

But then I put it aside.

It was supposed to be just a summer break sabbatical.  My son, the Kinglet, would be underfoot all the time – there would be swimming lessons and summer camp and far too much noise under one roof for me to get anything done.  I intended to start back up in September, but then it turned into a So-it-turns-out-the-Kinglet-has-Autism-but-the-School-wants-to-Fight-Against-Services-Oh-By-the-Way-I’m-pregnant-Hello-Morning-Sickness-Happy-Holidays-More-Morning-Sickness-Get-the-Nursery-Ready-Why-Am-I-Still-Throwing-Up-Oh-Look-It’s-Spring sabbatical.

Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Now my novel is like a friendship left too-long untended… you think about it, you say to each other “we really should get together soon”, but so much time has passed since anyone made an effort that you’ve crossed into awkwardness and no one really knows what to do about that. I miss it – I know I need to do something, especially now, before the baby comes and steals my sleep and every ounce of creative energy, but gah, where to start? Do I even know this novel anymore?

awkward

I guess the only thing TO do is just dive back in, no matter how awkward it feels… just open up the file, find the place where we left off and … start writing.  If it’s anything like real-people friendships, pretty soon we’ll be sharing mental martinis and tripping over things to say to each other.

drinks

It’ll be like no time has passed at all. Right?

Right?

I have discovered that writing short stories is dangerous to my mental health.

I strive for balance. I’ve said this before – my dearest wish is to portion out my have-to’s (housekeeping, exercise, balancing the checkbook, doctor’s appointments, childcare), want-to’s (gardening, meditating, learning), and MUSTS (writing… also, writing) in some kind of predictable routine. I want to feel peaceful, accomplished, and satisfied in life

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rather than constantly fighting to catch up with one thing or the other.

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As it turns out, though, my muse is a bipolar bitch who refuses to be yoked.

After months of crippling writer’s block, largely due to frustration with my current novel, I started work in February on several short stories I had promised to anthologies. Moving them out of my mental queue would be helpful – obligations to other people always loom large in my mind. I feel guilty, and distracted from anything else I mean to do.

Plus, I figured that short story work would help me transition back into writing the novel – being shorter projects, self-contained and conscripted to a certain theme. Like running sprints to get ready for a marathon.

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And I was right – come April, I’ve gotten back in the habit of writing, got the juices flowing, won my confidence back. And I think I’m ready to start the long journey once again, for all those reasons…

but also because, damn. Writing short stories is apt to kill me.

It’s like this: when I start a project, I start out slow. I like the 250-words a day challenge – a promise I can keep on any given day, doable even over morning coffee while the Kinglet eats his waffles and watches Spongebob before school. If I don’t know where I’m going yet, or need to think about a scene, I can write enough to still see the story grow, even if I don’t come back to it for the rest of the day.

Eventually, the daily wordcount gets higher. I get to know the characters, get invested in what’s happening. The project blossoms from something to play with into something I need and want to do. Then – voila – I’m writing a story.

With novel writing, this process works great for me. I can build a routine around it, writing something almost every day, feeling good that I’m chugging along, every day another step in that journey of a thousand miles…

The trouble with shorts, though, is that it only takes a few days of writing before you can start to see the end. For me, that’s where the crazy kicks in.

I think, oh, look. I’m almost there. If I push it, I can make it… just a little farther. Come on now, girl, work it. Dinner? What? No. Mommy’s working. Let me just kill of this character, finish this scene, search and replace all those -ly words, wait. This passage isn’t working, I just need to DAMN IT LEAVE ME ALONE.

*TWITCH*

No more writer’s block – now I’ve entered into a compulsive, manic creative state. When finally (HUZZAH!) the draft is finished, I look up to realize it’s eleven PM, my child has been sent to bed without a hug, my husband has slunk off to amuse himself with Netflix, my back hurts from sitting so long, and (lately) I’ve chain-smoked my way through an entire pack of Djarum specials. *cough*

BUT THE DRAFT IS DONE. Now what do I work on next? Hmmm. What about that other story…

I’ve completed three shorts since February, two for the anthologies and one I hope to start shopping soon. But I think now, for the sake of my family and my sanity, I need to chill.

Novel writing is hard – damn hard – but at least the end-game madness is a long time in coming.