Or: Help for When You’re Stuck
Part of the inspiration for starting the blog component of this site was hearing people’s frustration at being unable to finish their character’s backstory or get through a draft because they had to keep going back over the same things and couldn’t seem to get it right.
I would say, as a writer and writing teacher, that the problem there really comes down to belief. Belief in yourself, sure, but also belief about the writing process.
There are two truths that we need to get out in the open. Please trust me enough to give this revaluation a chance. Below, I ask you to consider that writer’s block isn’t real and that perfectionism is holding you back from freeing your best ideas onto the page.
1. “Writer’s block” isn’t real.
There are plenty of resources you can read online discussing writer’s block and how to deal with it. I think it’s easiest, though, to go ahead and admit to ourselves that it isn’t real.
By that, I’m not suggesting that we can always figure out the thing we’re trying to write down.
Several years ago, in an article I have been hunting and unable to find again, a famous writer (if you know, please tell me in the comments!), explained that what is actually happening with writer’s block is that we don’t want to write the thing we’re trying to write. Of course we can write something; we’re not absolutely unable to put words on the page. We could write about a bird, a cloud, what we had for lunch, etc.
Instead, they advised, go ahead and write about something else. Write something down. And, given time, we’ll either get bored and return, newly inspired, to what we were trying to write before or have sidestepped it enough to continue forward around the problem.
That would be my first challenge to you as a writer. Accept that writer’s block is pretend. The excuse of it is so tempting, because it allows us to stop when we should be pressing forward, to put something on simmer before it’s reached boiling.
Colson Whitehead describes this beautifully in his own practice. He says that when he gets stuck with something he’s writing, he recognizes that it’s a problem he hasn’t solved yet. Though Present Him isn’t able to figure it out, Future Him, maybe the next day, week, or even a few months down the line, will know how. So he sets it to the side and continues, trusting his brain to work on the problem until it’s ready to be solved.
2. Perfectionism is the death of producing.
When you read something else, especially something gorgeous, meaningful, or profound, it can be really tempting to compare it to your own work and say “I could never do that.”
On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. You can’t. That’s their story. But they can’t tell yours either.
When we’re stuck in the drafting process, unable to move the words on the page forward or endlessly circling back, it’s often because we’re expecting the work to be absolutely perfect before we even have it all down on paper in the first place.
Peter Elbow, in his amazing essay “Freewriting,” describes this problem as editing happening at the same time as producing. We end up drowning out our own ideas and voice by striking them out prematurely.
Instead, we need to separate our writer selves from our editor selves. Editor self, whoever they are, needs to go and sit somewhere quietly while your writer self is producing. Don’t critique your work. Don’t let that inner voice of fear and doubt stop you in the middle of converting the ephemeral thoughts in your head to black and white shapes in the form of words on a page.
It will be easier to adjust things once you’ve laid them all out and can look at them with fresh eyes. Your best ideas are below the surface, and you have to wade through some mediocre ideas and get them out of the way before those groundbreaking concepts and thoughts can begin to rise up.
3. Writing is work.
I know I said there would be two truths, but I couldn’t help addressing this one briefly.
Trying to help someone with their writing process once, I was rebuffed by another person: “It isn’t easy.” Of course it’s not! This incredible thing that you want to do, the story or message that you’re desperate to share with the world, is work to get out! Junot Diaz describes reading as “the closest we’ll ever get to telepathy” because someone else is literally in your mind, conversing with you.
For you to do that for your readers, especially in a way that makes following you effortless, is work. It’s hard. But it’s so worth doing.
In future posts, we’ll talk about personalizing the writing process for you and dealing with impostor syndrome. But letting go of perfectionism and the idea of “writer’s block” will be so freeing to your growth as a writer. It’s something we improve over the course of our entire lives, a journey all its own.
Related Post: Playing with Your Ideal Reader—changing who you think about when you’re writing can help free up your ideas until you’re ready to think about your intended audience.