Do What You Can (In Writing and Life)

This is an embarrassing confession from a writing coach, but last fall I got blocked on a project.  I was working on the rewrite of a novel for my agent. She and her staff had given me excellent revision suggestions and I was excited about them. But part of it involved giving the protagonist more motivation, digging into her backstory. And to do that, I had to add a couple of chapters. And to do that, I had to figure out to make them flow seamlessly into the book.

Usually I’m pretty good about such things. I wring my hands for a couple of days and then get to it. But this took weeks to get over.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t doing any other writing, either.   And when I get into that state in life, I am a very cranky girl.  Finally, I began writing a short story set in the same world as the novel I was supposed to be rewriting (there will be a whole series of novels set there) and that got me going again.   I turned in the revision to my agent earlier this week.

As I ponder the process I’ve just been through, the song running through my head, is Do What You Can. (Apparently I made the song up, because even though it is playing in my brain on a constant loop now, I can’t find lyrics or a video anywhere.) I wrote that title down on the note pad that is always beside my computer a few days ago to remind myself of its importance.

Because, I don’t know about you, but I tend to get stuck on one thing. I tell myself, I must finish that novel, or I have to write my newsletter, or any one of a million other things. And then if that particular thing doesn’t go well I’m either wringing my hands or farting around on the internet, reading stupid or upsetting stories.

This is at least partially about setting impossible expectations for myself. As in, I’ll sit down to that rewrite and it will flow smoothly from start to finish. Right-o.  Can’t think of when that has ever happened so why do I place such ridiculous ideals upon myself? I think it has to do with an outdated image I carry around in my brain.  I know better than this based on years of experience, but still it pops up. I hear the word romance novelist or English author and there it is my brain immediately: an image of a woman (beautiful, of course and dressed impeccably), devoting every minute of her days to writing her novel.  She sits at a beautiful desk in the country somewhere, stops only for tea, and never gets blocked.

I swear to you, this is a thing I carry around in my head. And the reality for all novelists and authors is quite different. We stop and start.  We wear yoga pants, or, often, jammies and drink coffee by the gallon. And there are plenty of times when the writing ceases (witness my afore-mentioned recent experience). This outdated image I can’t seem to shake is part of the reason I don’t turn my attention to another project when I get blocked.  Because I’m starting to believe that doing whatever I can on my writing is the best way to have a prolific writing practice.

Others reasons I don’t do this might be:

  • I’m afraid I’ll get totally absorbed in the new project and never go back to the old
  • I’m afraid I’ll forget where I am in the old project and lose the thread entirely
  • I’ll do so much switching back and forth that I’ll never finish anything

All valid concerns, and yet also easily dealt with.  Because, ultimately, isn’t getting something done better than nothing? You know the old saying–energy breed energy, I’ve found that to be true.  If I sit for too long I become one with the chair and I feel sluggish and lethargic. But when I’m making an effort to get up and walk around often, I feel much more energetic at the end of the day.

And the same is true of writing–writing breeds writing. If you’re blocked on a long project, write something shorter.  Scribble a blog post or a brilliant missive to a friend.  Start an essay or a short story.  Writing breeds more writing for sure, and somewhere in all of that you’ll find your way home to the thing you got blocked on.

It takes quite a bit of single-mindedness to finish a long writing project like a memoir or a novel. You must continually turn your face back to it despite all the marvelous distractions of life. And I think we end up taking this single-mindedness too seriously sometimes.  But once in awhile, maybe you could unloose the grip and give yourself some rope.

Do you focus all your energy on one writing project at a time or many? Please do share.  Also, if you’re having trouble with any aspect of your writing, I do have some coaching slots open. I’m currently revamping my coaching pages and they are a bit of a mess, so the best thing to do is contact me and we’ll chat!