There are times when I don’t feel like writing a weekly column. This is one of those times. So let’s talk about that.
I’ve had a bunch of writing students over the years, and I’ve found that teaching writing makes me a better writer. For one thing, when you’re helping people out of their writer’s block on a daily or weekly basis, it’s harder and harder to get mired in it yourself. Just now, sitting down to write this week’s piece, I was struck by the feeling that I profoundly did not want to sit down and write this weeks’ piece. But automatically, I recalled a time when I was telling one of my students: When you have writer’s block, write about the writer’s block.
Caveat Scriptor: If you Need to Take a Break, Take a Break!
Now. Hang on a moment. This is in no way to be interpreted as an argument against taking breaks. Even hobbies sometimes require breaks. And if writing is a hobby for you, then it’s okay to take a day off or a week off whenever you feel you need it. I practice these kinds of cycles with my own hobbies. I haven’t knit so much as a scarf in over a year. Even as I’ve played piano most every day (except while traveling) for two-and-a-half years. But those are hobbies. Writing and editing are my profession. All the more so one should be able to take breaks from one’s profession.
Loving what you do–or doing what you love–doesn’t mean sacrificing your body, mind, and soul on its altar. People crow about how dedicated Hemingway was to his craft, spending entire days writing (and day-drinking). But they never seem to mention, leastwise not in the same breath, that Hemingway committed suicide in what might otherwise have been his middle years. Suicide is a serious issue and one that deserves its own article. (For a selection of our articles on mental health, click here.) And the connection between fame and working yourself to death also deserves its own article. But can we at least start by giving the context surrounding the work-habits of people we lionize as being highly dedicated to their craft? Especially if the context is awful?
Anatomy of Writer’s Block
So what does writer’s block look like? For me, it means sitting down at the appointed time to write my essay and feeling, at least temporarily, overwhelmed. Because it isn’t just the writing. Though that can be chore enough. Writing a decent essay on an open theme like this often takes a couple of hours. Then there is the revising. Then Erika takes a look at it. Then it goes on the site, usually with many more revisions. Title. Headings. Pictures. SEO. The whole thing is frankly tiring.
In fact, the whole process reminds me of why I used to write by myself, for myself. I would not necessarily want to go back to those lonely endeavors. Too much the feeling of shouting into the void or existing wholly inside an echo chamber. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate why I did what I did. Putting yourself out there takes a lot of work. Building a community takes a lot of work. Sometimes we don’t feel up to it. And that’s okay. But other times it’s the tools the community gives you (even if it’s just the sense of having people around you, rooting for you) that, in turn, give you the energy to keep doing the work that keeps the community strong.
Dreaming of a Good Story
Reading back over what I have written, I worry that you’ll come away with an impression that I’m like a buoy, staying reliably afloat, but just barely keeping my head above water. So let’s talk about what it looks like when things are going well.
Several of my favorite pieces have actually come to me in dreams. I will wake up with an absolute sense of how a story or poem should go. And then I write and write until it’s done. And then I realize I need to change half of it. Because dreams aren’t magic. But if they get me halfway there… I guess that’s… half magic? The point is that the idea isn’t everything, but it’s nice, once in a while, to feel like a charioteer struggling to keep pace as your ideas gallop forward. They used to call that feeling “poet’s rage.” And I think of it as a kind of reward for writing regularly. Sometimes the writing goes very slowly. And sometimes you feel poet’s rage and you can’t type fast enough to keep up with your thoughts.
Simplest is Best
One of the signs of a good rhythm–the opposite of feeling blocked–is that the simplest ideas will be best. If you think about it, the best books (and movies) have hooks that can be described very simply and all of the complex ideas that emerge from them emerge because life is complex:
The Iliad: A general snubs his lieutenant, leading to a spiral of anger and revenge. Then the lieutenant stabs a river. Yes, really.
The Odyssey: I just wanna go home.
The Metamorphoses of Apuleius: A guy gets turned into a donkey, which allows him to see the dark underbelly of society.
King Lear: A man whose whole identity was his kingship… loses his kingship
Pride and Prejudice: Boy meets girl. Boy is a raging asshole. Girl is a bit of an asshole. Boy tries to be less of an asshole. Girl tries to be less of an asshole. <3 <3 <3.
Batman: Gruff older warrior solves crimes while learning about fatherhood
Lone Wolf and Cub: Gruff older warrior solves crimes while learning about fatherhood
Firefly: Gruff younger warrior commits crimes while learning about fatherhood
The Mandalorian: Haven’t seen it… but same gist, right?
Onward and Upward
The first lesson in poetry that I learned from my grandfather was: Write in such a way that nobody else could have written it. Still true. But I would add one thing: It’s a fairly good idea to write the premise of the story–the hook, if you prefer–in such a way that anyone could have written it. And then to flesh out the story in a way that only you can.
One of my stories began with this: an old man needs to put his old dog down, but doesn’t want to yet. Not exactly the Photoelectric Effect. I woke up ready to write that story. It still took weeks of revisions before it sounded how I wanted it to sound. But I never doubted that story for a minute. And yes that’s an example of the process going well. It’s a story that’s easy to sum up but by the time I finished writing it, it was a story nobody else could have written. Cheesy, but in this case (perhaps only in this case) actually true. I’m happy to report that that story will be published by Door is a Jar Magazine in March of 2023.
I think there’s a nice kind of symmetry there. Sometimes trying to write a new story or essay feels like drowning. Otherwise it is literally a dream. But when the initial seed has sprouted, it is essentially the same process: write, revise, edit, share, revise, edit, share, revise, edit, share… PUBLISH.
Did you Seriously Start your Essay off Writing about Writer’s Block and then Transition to Bragging about your Process?
I guess I did. But think about it this way: it’s all part of the process. The writer’s block is part of the process. The poet’s rage is part of the process. Imagine being an athlete and never having a contingency plan for a sprained ankle. Or a fractured toe. Or a bruised buttock. That’s just unrealistic. So use the time to take stock. Are you being too solitary? Too social? too hard on yourself? Be your own doctor. Talk to the people in your writing community. And then: “Physician, heal thyself.”