It can be hard to put words on the page at the best of time. The inner critic can rear its head, bringing on self-doubt and uncertainty, which leads to a feeling that many people call writer’s block.
However, these are not the best of times. Many folks have been shut in at home due to shelter-in-place orders, which might seem an ideal situation to increase productivity and get writing done. Instead, increased feelings of stress, uncertainty, and depression can make it harder to be creative, compounding the problem.
My own writing process has been hit or miss over the past few weeks, with stretches of no writing being marked with sudden bursts of creativity. Since I’ve been dealing with my own ambiguous feelings towards being creative, I thought I’d share a few tools or methods I use to address the feeling of being blocked when it comes up.
Not all of these ideas are going to work for everyone, so feel free to use or discard them as you see fit.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is in full swing, with writers around the world diving into their novel or rebel projects. Words are spattering themselves upon page like rain — either in drizzles or downpours. Plotlines are taking root. Characters are waking up and blossoming into shape. Scenes are growing lush and vibrant.
At least, that’s the blessing I send out to all my fellow writers this month.
When I announced my intentions to partake in NaNoWriMo this year, one of the main methods of preparation was to eliminate all future considerations — all the little thoughts of what this new novel might be or become. In my first four days of working on the project, I have managed to get ahead of my daily goals, reaching just over 8,500 words. Along the way, it has been interesting to observe the little games my mind started playing, jumping past the present to future possibilities. Each time, I had to rein those thoughts in and find a way to keep writing.
Brain Game One: Future Success — The first day of working on my new novel was incredibly successful, which was a surprise and a delight. It had been a long time since I had such a smooth writing day, and I was proud of the words I wrote and the direction the story was taking. My brain, noticing me reveling in the pleasure of my success, immediately began jumping ahead. THIS would be the novel, this will be the one to achieve an agent and a publisher, oodles of money and awards, and —
Knock it off, I told myself. None of that matters right now. All that matters is here in the story. Who is this person you’re writing? What comes next? Stick to writing in the now.
Brain Game Two: Future Editing — As I continued on the second day, I found myself discovering the characters and what would happen to them through the act of writing. I allowed details and traits and events to evolve throughout a scene, allowing contradictions to take place and letting them lie, knowing I could come back and visit it later. My brain, however, would not let it be, insisting on telling me all the ways the previous passages would need to be fixed and fixed immediately.
Thank you, I told myself. But let’s worry about those things at another time. We’re focusing on the first draft. Let’s write in the now.
Brain Game Three: Future Failure — The process of writing is always shifting and not every day will flow smoothly. It was inevitable that self doubt would make its appearance, and it did on the third day. My brain fell right into lock-step, questioning whether these words would be good enough or whether this would just be another novel to sit languid in a drawer, ever unfinished.
Hush, I told myself. Everything’s okay. It’s a draft. It doesn’t have to be good enough. Just keep going, stick with the story and see where it leads. Write in the now.
. . .
As the month continues, I’ll have to face thoughts like this over and over again. It’s a continual process of pulling myself back to the present moment, taking a deep breath, and writing from where I’m at in the her and now. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the act of writing — which is exactly what I was hoping to get out of my NaNo experience this year.
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or working on any kind of creative projects this month, let me know how you’re doing. Do you find yourself fighting future thoughts? How do you deal with such thoughts and keep moving forward?
. . .
Note: This was first published in A Seed to Hatch, my (semi)-monthly newsletter on the writing life and things that are interesting to writers. If you enjoyed reading this, please check out the archives and/or subscribe:
For years I’ve been wanting to attend, but haven’t been able to travel to the many wonderful destinations the event appears at around the world. So, when I saw that WorldCon 76 was going to be in San Jose, California (practically my backyard), I jumped at the chance to finally attend — and not only attend, but participate in a reading!
During WorldCon, I still had to work my day job, so I didn’t get a chance to fully experience the event. But even just going in the evenings and on the weekend, I had a fabulous time. I ran into several writer and reader friends, chatted it up with some lovely strangers, and shopped for books and other goodies to my heart’s content (and pocket book’s misery). Here are a few highlights from my first WorldCon.
Watching the Hugo Awards
Rather than going into the grand ballroom, some friends and I gathered in Callahan’s to watch the live stream together — which allowed us the ability to grab some beers and snacks while we were watching. While the ceremonies as a whole were great, one of the best moments of the night was N.K. Jemisin winning the Hugo for Best Novel. She’s the first person to ever have one this award three years in a row, and her acceptance speech was a moving and funny and powerful. I cried seeing it at WorldCon and I cried again rewatching it on video. Check it out. It’s amazing.
Breaking Out of the Margins
Panel with Michi Trota, JY Yang, Foz Meadows, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Sarah Kuhn (moderator)
Breaking Out of the Margins was probably my favorite panel at the event. All of the authors were brilliant, pulling from each of their experiences to form a thoughtful, intelligent discussion on the subject of identity in relation to creative endeavors.
Both Michi Trota andCaroline M. Yoachim noted that when they were young writers, they had defaulted to putting white people as main characters. As they grew as writers, they began including characters who were more like them, representing their own experiences and backgrounds.
Sarah Kuhn noted the people will often ask why the author made the character black or Asian or gay, which reflects the default white straight perspective. But when an author makes a character white, straight, cis-gendered, this also is a choice that they’re making, although it’s not seen as such.
Kuhn also brought up the concept of “Rep Sweats” the stress of watching, reading, or creating a work that is the sole representation of a culture or group of people. Suddenly, there’s a lot of pressure for that work (she used Fresh Off the Boat as an example) to be perfect — in part because if the show fails, then it could be a years before anything like it comes around again.
Foz Meadows replied that when there’s a lack of diverse content in the world, then the little bit of content that is produced has a greater weight to it. So, the solution is to have a wider range of representation that allows authors and creators to have the room to fail.
Meadows also quoted a tumblr post talking about Jupiter Rising, which stated that it’s garbage, but it’s your garbage. The point being that some of the fun of fiction and film and such is being able to enjoy fun trash with characters who represent them.
“Yes,” replied JY Yang. “I just want to make stories about kissing and shooting things in space!”
In the end, “Let us write trash,” became a gleeful rallying cry — and I’m hoping we will all get to read some fantastic new trash from these authors in the future.
Research Rabbit Holes
Karen Joy Fowler, Andy Duncan, Lawrence M. Schoen, Ann Leckie, Irene Radford, and Sarah Pinsker (moderator)
Research Rabbit Holes was a delight of a panel, presenting for the most part stories of the ways the authors had fallen into such holes, how those holes had revealed surprising inspiration for their stories, and a multitude of fun facts they discovered over the years. I unfortunately wasn’t able to retain all of these stories, even though they delighted me.
The panel pointed out that there are two kinds of research — the brainstorming stage (before you start the story) and the plug-in-a-fact stage (when you just need to know one specific thing while you’re writing). The brainstorming stage is the hardest to know when to stop and each writer had their own take on when that moment is. Ann Leckie noted that you don’t need to know all the details before you start writing, while Lawrence M. Schoen explained that he likes to feel fully immersed in the research, knowing he won’t be writing it all out, but that that immersion allows details to come out naturally in his writing.
On being afraid of getting it wrong, Karen Joy Fowler said, “When someone sends me an email saying ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’ because I’ve intersected two streets in a story that could never intersect, I just think, ‘I gave that person more pleasure by getting it wrong than if I had gotten it right.'”
Petrified Trees, Enchanted Mirrors: The Gothic Universe of Female Mexican Horror Writers
Raquel Castro, Andrea Chapela, Gabriela Damian Miravete, and Pepe Rojo (moderator)
The three panelists — each of whom write horror themselves — provided some fascinating insight into the long tradition of female Mexican horror writers. This is a horror that is specifically feminine, with women using the genre to explore the circumstances of their lives and the stereotypes and repression of women within the country.
There is something about horror that has to do with control, explained Raquel Castro, a control that women don’t have. These stories help women deal with the horrors of their everyday lives that they don’t have control over — providing a way for them to exorcise these feelings. “I’ve heard so many stories of the women’s lives around me, and these stories haunted me,” said Castro. “I wanted to tell these stories — but coded through horror.”
Gabriela Damian Miravete said, “Horror is a place for of creativity and life. Even though it speaks of grim things, it is a safe space. It can give you comfort, as you read it, knowing there’s daylight and that in the end, you can put down the book and escape the haunted house. It’s a joy we must recover.” Miravete also pointed out that as horrors in real life increase, the horror genre tends to decay — but that she hopes that we can reverse the flow, compensating with genre.
The panel named a dozen or so female horror writers in Mexico, but unfortunately I had a hard time getting all the names down. However, The Outer Dark podcast will be sharing the panel in a future episode and plans to provide a list of all the writers and stories suggested. So, I’ll be sure to link to them once that list appears.
On Sunday, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) hosted a reading of speculative poetry. I always find joy and inspiration in hearing poems read, and I was honored to have been read alongside G.O. Clark, Sue Burke, John Phillip Johnson, Mary Soon Lee, Denise Clemons, and Alan Stewart (author website included where I could find it).
Several of the SFPA crew were also on the Science Fiction Aesthetics panel that followed immediately after the reading. I was able to pop in for half of the panel before running off, but enjoyed the discussion while I was there.
The first night I came home from the con, my roommate stared at me in confusion. “Where’s your usual stack of new books?” she asked.
I laughed. “What do you mean? It’s only the first day! I’ll have plenty of books by the end, I promise.”
And I certainly lived up to that promise. Here’s what I grabbed.
My Life, My Body, Plus… by Marge Piercy
The Atheist in the Attic, Plus… by Samuel R Delany
Skies of Wonder, Skies of Danger: An Isle of Write Anthology, edited by John Appel, Jo Miles, and Mary Alexandra Agner
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
The Long Way to a Strange and Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, edited by Eduardo Jiménez Mayo & Chris N Brown
“I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money. There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million! We don’t have any standards in that way, and we probably never will. There will always be such a wide range of what writers are paid, but at least we could give each other information.” Cherryl Strayed in conversation with Manjula Martin, published in Scratch
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin (founder of now-closed Scratch Magazine), presents a mix of interviews and essays on the act of trying (sometimes succeeding) to make money as a writer. These perspectives come from writers of varying backgrounds, from novelists and poets to news and creative nonfiction writers, to filmmakers. A number of writers I’m fond of are included in this book — such as Austin Kleon, Malinda Lo, Roxane Gay, and Daniel José Older — as well as many writers whose work is new to me.
Readers of Scratch will not find a step-by-step guide on how to “make it” as a writer. This collection of essays never reaches a consensus, except perhaps to say that the pathways to making a living as a writer are multitudinous and have not all been discovered yet. Lacking any one clear answer, the reader instead of directives, the reader is given personal journeys (sometimes deeply so). It’s not a matter of “this is how you should do it,” but rather “this is how I am doing it”.
I returned to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life this month, although looking back I’m not really sure why. I knew I wanted to read a writing book and this was a book I loved once upon a time, but it had been years since I’ve read it and there were plenty of other as-yet-unread writing books on my selves that I could have picked up instead.
Maybe I was just drawn to it. Lamott’s words were as witty, intelligent, and compassionate as I remembered them, but I struggled through the first portion of the book, my mind distracted and unable to focus — a problem with my own headspace more than the words on the page.
I think I’ve been a bit mentally overwhelmed in recent weeks (or months), too many things in life and literature for me to process — which might be a reason I’ve been turning more to TV and movies as a form of relaxation, since they tend to require less engagement.
But as I read and continued reading, working my way through the my own mental blocks, the book slowly anchored me and I felt a little clearer. Lamott writes about her own challenges in writing and in life and the ways it can overwhelm and drive her into despair. Seeing to her imperfect journey was a comfort, providing a sense of I’m not alone in this mess as I approached mine.
At the moment, I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t seem to call up any of the specific pieces of advice that Lamott gives. So, I’ll point to Carina Bissett, who also did a reread of Bird by Bird recently and shared a lovely piece on the ways that this book has helped her through challenging times. In her post, she highlights the recommendations Lamott has for getting past perfectionism and moving into getting words on the page — shitty first drafts, short assignments, the picture frame technique.
As Carina notes in her post, “It can be a difficult pursuit to move past the desire for perfection in order to put the story on the page in its raw and garbled state. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to discover the places where a story might have missed its mark or characters whose voices might never be heard if you don’t get the words on the page.”
Once upon a time, I would have recommended Bird by Bird primarily to young writers, writers just learning to face the immensity of the page. But having reread it now, I can see that this is a book for writers of all ages and at many stages in their career, a book that teaches compassion for the self, even when struggling with the writing life and the universe, and everything.