Getting past writer’s block and other thoughts on writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s block. Since deciding to be more disciplined about writing, I’ve suffered my share of this. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, staring at a blank screen and waiting for the words to come. You know lots of people experience it, but at that moment, when you face it, you feel like the only person in the world who is stuck. You feel isolated. It’s a lonely feeling.

I used to only write when I felt inspired, when I already had an idea forming and I could just sit down and let the words flow. Now, though, I make myself write everyday, whether I feel inspired or not. Often I do have a kernel of an idea. But many times, I freeze up. I can’t develop the kernel. I don’t have enough to say. I switch topics or simply stare at what I’ve got and think for a long time.

Sometimes I avoid the discomfort of writer’s block by avoiding writing altogether. I’m pretty good at that. Today, for instance, I found all sorts of things to do instead of sit at my desk. I started a load of laundry. I picked up the house. I noticed my bowl of lemons and remembered the recipe my sister-in-law gave me to make preserved lemons. I hunted for the old recipe and made a shopping list. I finally sat down at my desk and answered some e-mails. Then I got hungry. I had to eat. How could I use up the asparagus and noodles in my refrigerator? I threw them together on the stove with some cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon and butter sauce. I was feeling like I had accomplished a lot—but I hadn’t written a word.

When I first decided to write more I cut back on my hours at work and pledged to dedicate that time to writing. Surely I would be churning out lots of great pieces! Instead I ran into a wall of writer’s block. I was trying to write was about my recent travels to Guatemala. It had been life changing and full of adventure but I discovered I couldn’t convey the experience the way I wanted and I was frustrated. After two weeks of tweaking, I had written an accurate summary of the trip but something was missing. I was so concerned in getting the big picture right that I forgot some of the rich details—the taste of the juicy mangos the village women gave us, the bump of the bus ride, and the odd juxtaposition of so many things, like the villagers’ cellphones hanging from their handmade woven belts. I would write the piece differently now—and maybe I will.

I’m realizing more and more that good writing takes time. All creative work involves patience and attention. Meanwhile, other kinds of work bring more instant rewards—and that’s alluring. I worked at a bookstore for almost three years. I enjoyed helping customers find the book they wanted so desperately they couldn’t even wait for Amazon to deliver it. Either that or they came specifically to support their local bookstore. Then I would ring up their sale. I loved working the cash register. I always felt like a kid who was playing store, as though I was handling fake money. I enjoyed shelving new books fresh out of the box. I even enjoyed gift wrapping books, from carefully measuring out the paper from our big roll to affixing ribbons and a gold sticker. At the end of my shift, I saw tangible results. With writing, I don’t always get to see a neatly wrapped package at the end of the day. I’m learning to be satisfied with that.

The most challenging thing about the kind of writing I’m doing is that nobody is the boss but me. I have to set my own goals. Only I know if I’ve wasted time surfing the internet or shopping online or reorganizing my closets. I’ve crossed paths with many creative types this past year and one thing I know for sure is that this work involves discipline. You have to show up and submit to the process, anticipating that writer’s block or lack of inertia is all part of it.

For me discipline involves a bit of hocus-pocus. I once knew a woman writing her dissertation who wore a special hat whenever she sat down to write. I don’t have a hat but instead I set up a schedule and an inviting space. I try to sit down to write at the same time everyday. I keep a notebook with two to-do lists: one with my writing goals and one with my other tasks. I tell myself I can’t work on those other tasks until after I write. Various rituals encourage this: hot coffee at my desk, a clean workspace and a pad of lined paper for jotting notes. I try my hardest to protect this time. Most days this works; other times it doesn’t.

I marvel at writers like Mark Twain who could write eight or ten hours a day with barely an interruption. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point—I’m not even sure I want that. What I have discovered though, is that writing leads to more writing. Many writers talk about how they feel a compulsion to write every day. They can’t live without it. The more I write, the more I understand that. Writer’s block aside, the writing process is an exciting experience of discovery. You discover new ideas you didn’t even know you had or had never formally stated. That can be intoxicating. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

I recently read writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” She proposes that ideas live in the universe independently of humans. An idea might decide to visit you at a certain juncture in your life and if you are ready for it, you can work with it. If you’re not ready, it will find another “home.” She illustrates this with a story about how she once tried to write a book about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert worked on the book for several years but got sidelined by personal issues and put the project aside. Then Gilbert met writer Ann Patchett. After getting to know each other, Gilbert eventually learned that Patchett was working on a new novel. And what is the novel about? It’s a novel about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert is astounded to learn that her idea had migrated to Patchett! Patchett’s book became the bestselling novel “State of Wonder.”

I’m not sure I fully believe Gilbert’s idea that ideas are independent. But I’d like to. It adds to the mystery of this whole process. It also reinforces the concept that we are all intertwined and connected in powerful ways that we can’t even see. Our experiences and interactions with others become like an elixir we can spill out on the page. Our words, in turn, then influence the next person that reads them and we never quite know the outcome.

Creative work demands not only discipline, but courage. I need to believe that I have something important to say. I have something original to add to the large body of material already out there. Writer’s block often creeps in when I’m feeling doubtful and shy. I need to look writer’s block in the face and say, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to write anyway. This may not be a masterpiece, but it’s good enough.”

How do you face creative blocks? I’m always eager to hear how other writers or creative types work and think. Where do you get inspiration? How do you stay disciplined? Do you talk to other writers? Do you talk to yourself? For me the process, in all its meandering mysterious ways, is almost as interesting as the product itself.

When I worked at the bookstore, I always enjoyed hearing famous writers come in and talk about their writing process. None of them said it was easy. I take heart, knowing even the best struggle and have their good days and bad days. I know that all of this is part of the larger process, a process I’m only beginning to understand.

Lessons in writing

Children are among the best teachers. I have two children, and, though they have the same parents and live in the same house, they have very different personalities. One tends to be a perfectionist, with an ability to focus and pay attention to small details. He is the kind of kid who enjoys spending hours following the dozens of intricate steps involved in putting together a Lego kit. We have a small city of Lego buildings proudly displayed in our family room. I can identify with this personality. I like to work hard on a demanding project and I like to save it. I still have a few old papers from college stashed away in my basement. Why? Have I ever re-read them? No. But somehow I couldn’t throw them away. My other son enjoys building things too. But he has no interest in following directions. He would rather build something from scratch and play with it as soon as possible. And even when he does spend long amounts on his creations, they are purely utilitarian. When he’s done playing he’ll smash his object with no regrets. I can’t count the number of times I’ve screamed, “no,” when he’s about to rip up a special drawing or a story. In his mind, he’s done with the art or the story and I read it; why save it?

Several years ago a group of Tibetan monks visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and they offered a class on making mandalas, geometric designs created with colored sand. The mandalas took several days or even a week to make as the students had to pour sand through little tubes to create the intricate designs. Once the the mandalas were finished and displayed they were destroyed. This was done to emphasize the transitory nature of our existence.

If I ever teach a writing class, I think I might start with a mandala exercise. Writing is often about letting go. We write, create, we cut, reword, throw out. I often become so attached to an idea, even when it isn’t working, that I am reluctant to leave it. What if, as an exercise, we went to a class, worked hard on something for an hour, and then (without knowing this ahead of time), were asked to crumple that writing up and throw it away. I often think (mistakenly) that everything I write has value and should be saved. Hey, even if I don’t want to save it as a finished work, maybe I’ll need it for the ideas it gave me. Perhaps it’s the journalist instinct in me to save notes and scraps, just in case. But I could benefit from a freer hand.

In Febraruy 2010 I visited Valencia Spain to see the Fallas, a gigantic street party in which the whole city spends an entire year building dozens of sculptures that are displayed on street corners for a weekend. The sculptures represent various vices. There was a 3-story  Formula 1 race car and driver, a woman dancing and a man drinking wine, and a woman on a wave, representing people surfing the internet. The high point of the festival comes at midnight on Saturday when all the Fallas are burned to the ground. Huge crowds wait for hours to see the burning and the city’s fire department is on hand for emergencies.  I’m not sure how seriously people take the meaning behind the fallas, but there is something about fire that attracts humans. It is the power of life and destruction in one. On the one hand the people must feel a bit sad about burning their creations but on the other hand they are freeing themselves from the past year of work to begin anew.

Next time I get stuck writing I need to remember the lessons of the mandala and the Fallas and the power of starting over. I might not burn my drafts but I can hit the delete button with more satisfaction, knowing that starting over can release new energy.

 

Jack London, John Steinbeck and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. It appears that Jack London never had it. He wrote 50 books and 61 short stories before his death at age 40.. His short life contained enough drama to be a book in and of itself. It seemed Jack was always on the move, whether it was writing or exploring the wilds of Alaska or promoting a cause. Quantity of work, however, doesn’t always mean quality.

This summer my son was assigned “Call of the Wild” by his English teacher. “Call of the Wild” is one of Jack London’s best-known books. My son, however, didn’t think it was so great. He complained over and over that it was boring. Finally, the last week of summer, I told him he didn’t have a choice—he had to finish it. It became a daily argument.

Unfortunately, one of these arguments made me late for a meeting with a literary agent, of all things. I had met Andy Ross at a writing conference, and I was now meeting him to ask for advice on entering the publishing world. I was excited to talk with Andy, as he was the owner of the famed, but now closed, Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 40 years. But to arrive late—even if only two minutes late and with a good excuse—was embarrassing.

I rushed into Fatapples, the restaurant where we had agreed to meet and scanned the room. I saw that Andy was already seated and quickly walked to the table. “I’m sorry,” I said, “My son is supposed to read ‘Call of the Wild’ and he is complaining that it is boring.” Then I looked up. Ironically, Fatapples has a Jack London theme. If you look up, you’ll see a painted shelf of Jack London books running around the room just below the ceiling. I pointed this out, hoping to lighten things up. “It’s funny that this made me late and here we are, chatting under these Jack London books.” Andy was generous. He laughed and said, “No, you’re not late at all. Don’t worry. I just hope I can be of some help.” Then he added, “Have you read ‘Call of the Wild’ lately? It’s overwritten. I would say your son is right. Maybe the teacher could have assigned Steinbeck.”

So much for Jack London. I felt a bit bad about forcing my son to read the book. I vowed to read it myself, but never did. A few weeks later, I did manage to read Jack London’s most famous short story, “To Build A Fire.” It was a good story, about a man who journeys through 50 degree below temperatures in Alaska, against the advice of the locals, but it was a bit monotonous and drawn out. I almost wanted the character to die before he did—just get it over with. Maybe Jack London is famous for the wrong reasons. He lived a big life and wrote about it. And wrote and wrote and wrote.

Some writers seem to produce a huge amount. I’m not one of them, at least for now. I started this blog several months ago with vigor, but real life and writer’s block seem to have slowed my production. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though. Quantity isn’t everything.

Last week my son had to write a report on John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” I remember reading the book in junior high and I was eager to read it again. I could see why it is memorable—it’s a good story and definitely not overwritten. The reader is drawn into the story of Lenny and Curly quickly and feels sympathy with their lot in life. Steinbeck wrote it to resemble a play and it does have the elements of one—lots of dialogue and a series of well-paced scenes. In fact, there have been dozens of stage productions made of the book and a few movies. Steinbeck didn’t write as many books as Jack London and he lived for 66 years. At my rate I may write one good book, maybe two, in my lifetime. That’s enough for me.

Bienvenidos a mi blog! (for English version see next post)

Hola a todos. Estoy entrando en el mundo salvaje de los blogs! Voy a publicarlos de vez en cuando y espero que disfrutéis mis pensamientos y descubrimientos. Para inaugurar este espacio, me gustaría publicar este haiku hermoso de comenzar de nuevo:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no
monogatari

Día de Año Nuevo-
las nubes se han ido y los gorriones
están diciendo a cada uno de otros cuentos.

-Ransetsu (1653-1708)

A veces en la vida experimentamos coincidencias hermosas y uno de ellos es que mi buen amigo Leslie Wingender también puso en marcha un blog hace unos días! Leslie, muchas bendiciones mientras llenas su “casa rosa”: http://apinkhouse.com/. Me di cuenta que no tengo un nombre para mi blog aún: Si alguien tiene una sugerencia, estoy abierta!

También, muchas gracias a dos blogs fascinantes que he disfrutado recientemente y me han inspirado para dar el salto. Son http://www.kevindhendricks.com/ y http://ahuskofmeaning.com/. Ambos son lugares increíbles llenos de comentarios hermosos de todo, desde la espiritualidad del arte a la política.

Si alguien está leyendo esto hoy, domingo, 17 de julio 2011, tenga un maravilloso día de reposo! Estamos en lo que la iglesia dice que es “Tiempo Ordinario”, o tempus por año (el tiempo durante todo el año), el tiempo que queda fuera de los días santos de alta como Cuaresma, Pascua, Adviento y Navidad. Sin embargo, Tiempo Ordinario no es menos importante. Una persona escribe que el día del Tiempo Ordinario, especialmente los domingos, “están dedicados al misterio de Cristo en todos sus aspectos.” El color oficial del Tiempo Ordinario es el verde.

virtual fountain

Welcome to my blog

Hi everyone. I am entering the wild and wooly world of blogging! I will post occasional entries and hope you enjoy my random thoughts and discoveries. To inaugurate this space, I’d like to post this beautiful haiku about starting anew:

ganjitsu ya
harete suzume no
monogatari

New Year’s Day–
the clouds are gone and the sparrows
are telling each other tales.

–Ransetsu (1653-1708)

Sometimes in life we experience beautiful coincidences and one of those is that my good friend Leslie Wingender also started a blog a few days ago! Leslie, many blessings as you fill your “pink house”: http://apinkhouse.com/. I realized I don’t have a name for my blog yet: If anyone has a suggestion, I’m open!

Also, many thanks to two fascinating blogs that I’ve enjoyed recently and have inspired me to make the leap. They are http://www.kevindhendricks.com/ and http://ahuskofmeaning.com/. Both are incredible sites full of beautiful and insightful comments about everything from spirituality to art to politics.

If anyone is reading this today, Sunday, July 17, 2011, have a wonderful Sabbath! We are in what the church says is “Ordinary Time,” or Tempus Per Annum (time throughout the year), that time that falls outside of the high holy days such as Lent, Easter, Advent and Christmas. But Ordinary Time is not any less important. One person writes that the days of Ordinary Time, especially the Sundays, “are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects.” The official color for Ordinary Time is green.