Beating writer’s block: The next experiment

Dante_Virgil_Bouguereau_detail
That’s me on the left, clearly winning. That’s writer’s block having its throat bitten out. I hope. (Image is actually two damned souls fighting – it’s a detail from Bouguereau’s ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’)

It’s no secret I’ve been having trouble writing recently.

I’ve been trying various things to beat the block. I’ve tried writing ‘something fun’ for myself alone. I’ve tried writing ‘morning pages’ (I’m still doing these. I don’t see how they make writing a novel any easier, but anyway). I’ve tried having a go at something in a different tone/genre.

All good techniques, doubtless, but they haven’t worked for me. I ground to a halt with ‘something fun’ (it wasn’t fun; perhaps I should have tried ‘something grim’?). I made a couple of false starts with ‘something in another tone/genre’, stopped to do research, then got stuck again.

It’s not that I can’t physically type some words: it’s that they seem dead on the page. I don’t know where the scenes should go. I don’t know what I want to say. Characters feel wooden. I read over what I’ve written and feel nothing. The underlying ideas (magic systems or whatever) feel trite or overly complicated. And when I interrogate the basic ideas I start wondering if they could possibly be offensive in some way. I mean, I can’t see it, but maybe – and then I start second-guessing myself, lose confidence and stop.

So I’m trying something new.

The new ‘thing’ is directly from a ‘Magic Lessons’ podcast in which author and writing guru Elizabeth Gilbert gives advice to an author in the Netherlands who’s in a similar situation to me (i.e. successful first novel, has started several new projects but keeps losing faith with them a couple of months in). I related very strongly to the Dutch author: she recounts being in the supermarket, standing there, completely unable to decide which kind of yoghurt to buy. Well, that’s me. I can’t make the simplest decisions at the moment. The Dutch author explains how she feels her next book ought to be better than her first. Again, I believe that too, deep down. I know it’s silly. I know, I know. I know it’s comparisonitis. I still can’t seem to shift the belief.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast – it’s great and includes an interview with Neil Gaiman. But if you don’t want to listen right now, basically, I interpret Ms. Gilbert’s advice thus:

  • Take a month off writing. For me, this includes not reading for research and not making notes, though I am still writing ‘morning pages’ if I feel like it because these can be any old thing and are therefore low stress.
  • Once the month is up, sit down to write at the times you would usually write, but ONLY write for one hour. Time it. Once the hour is up, stop and do whatever you like. You have done your duty for the day and need do no more.
  • Whatever project you decide upon YOU MUST FINISH (NB – I think this will be the hardest thing for me, to continue work on a project I feel is worthless, but I’ve chopped and changed so much that I can see the sense in it. I guess if it feels really dumb you just have to finish as quickly as you can).

That’s it. Ms. Gilbert reckons that this WILL WORK to get a stuck writer going again. And I think she means going happily more or less. Of course it will be hard work, but it won’t be the awful struggle against myself that I’ve been having.

So, this past week was my first week ‘off’ trying to write. Elizabeth Gilbert suggests going on holiday but that’s not possible for me right now due to my day job and kids. She also suggests exercising, visiting friends – all the things you tend to miss out on if you’re writing (or trying to write) in most of your spare time.

All week I felt terribly, terribly guilty. I kept thinking ‘a break from writing is the LAST thing I should be doing. I should be trying HARDER. I should be knuckling down. I should be cudgelling my brain into coming up with better ideas that will seem worth writing. I’ve wasted so much time already. Oh fuck.’

But I reminded myself that Elizabeth Gilbert told me to have a holiday and Neil Gaiman agreed with her. I went for a long walk by the sea and then another long walk in the hills. I read a few books that have nothing to do with research (David Sedaris, mostly, in case you’re wondering). I watched a bit of Netflix. I sat with a cat on my knee. I went out and bought a chair. I made leek and potato soup and went to bed early.

I have three more weeks of this giddy madness.

Now, at the end of Week One, the guilt has faded and mostly I just feel relieved to have permission to take a break. Writer’s block and publishing issues have been consuming my entire life for months. My brain cycles endlessly through the dozens of book ideas I have, trying to figure out if this time one will seem more gripping, more worth writing. I can’t sleep for examining and discarding these ideas. And then, when I do fall asleep, I wake up in the night thinking about it all again.  But now I don’t have to even THINK about any of it for three more weeks. Yes. It’s nice. It’s a relief. I’d give you a good metaphor but I’m too tired to think of one. Nice is all I’ve got. Nice is okay.

Will it get me writing again?

I’ll let you know.

And if you’re out there, stressing about writer’s block – why not join me in the experiment? Can’t hurt, right? Could be just what we need. Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Here’s the link again: Elizabeth Gilbert podcast (Magic Lessons Ep.207: Living the Dream and Facing the Nightmare – featuring Neil Gaiman)

12 Comments

  1. Sometimes we despise our own writing, but others love it. I can’t truly appreciate what I’ve written until years go by and it feels like other person did it. I’m going to give this Finish-Something business a try. But first I gotta finish transcribing my notes 😔 Thanks for sharing your journey. I hope it works for you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t seem to reply to your reply (silly WordPress!) so I’ll reply here and say: Let us make a pact, then. Let it be the best kind of pact; one that gives both parties strength, that comes with no judgement and no fear of failure. A pact that buoys us up and feels fun and exciting, like a secret society created by children. There’s no deadline – and whatever we do doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished – to first draft stage. Of course we’ll both do our best, but that doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. I’ll get in touch via DM.

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  2. You made my day with your use of the artwork above. 🙂 So nuanced! It has everything: writers in hell, eternal struggle, and a nice detailed depiction of the male form.

    Enjoy your break! It sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just finished listening to the 2nd season of that podcast and can’t help but feel that end-of-book sadness, wishing for more episodes. It’s sooo good. I think perhaps in the situation that you and Britta find yourselves, a break from the cudgelling is the real magic here. There’s something triggered in the brain – a sense of perfectionism, or criticalness or fear of offending that eats the heart out of the story before it can get really rolling. The break is perhaps a reset, where you get to REST and not feel hounded by the bloody beast that this work can become. I’m excited that you’re doing this. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being overly critical of my ideas in the early stages has stopped me before so you’d think I’d be better at ignoring it by now. I guess I just needed to learn the lesson over again. I’ve noticed that to come up with ideas I’m happy with, I need to be in a relaxed, positive and playful frame of mind -which is the polar opposite of cudgelled anxiety. This is my third week ‘off’ and I’m getting moments of perkiness interspersed by periods of gloom – but at least there are moments of perkiness, right? And there are also periods of calm. Knowing that when I go back to writing – I will only be writing for an hour each time is quite reassuring. Plus, knowing that whatever I start I will finish, while scary on one level (because what if I hate it?) is also reassuring, because there’ll be no chopping and changing. I’ll HAVE to focus on it. And then once I’ve finished it I can show it to other people and get feedback that isn’t just internal – and I think that’ll be a good and healthy thing.

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