Ah, But Here’s the Rub

A couple months ago I wrote a post titled Write Three Pages a Day and You’ll Be Happy.

This command, and the post I wrote about it, are all true.  I believe this statement with all my heart, because I believe that as writers, we must write regularly to be happy.

However….

Upon rare occasion, there may come a day, when you realize, as youmdutifully write your three pages a day on a daily basis, that you are lost and meandering.  In a dark wood, wandering, so to speak.  Unsure where those three pages a day are taking you, if anywhere.

Not that this has ever happened to me, mind you.  Just sayin’ it might happen.  It just might.

And you will need to be prepared if it does.  Because when if this happens you might inadvertently feel worse for having written your three pages then if you’d not written at all.  Here you are, diligently writing, yet you seem to be wandering far afield.  No plot appears.  Your characters are aimless, boring creatures.  Your words like dead and flat on the page.

What to do when this happens?

I don’t know, really.  The truth is, nobody does.  Feeling lost and uncertain where you are going in a project is an occupational hazard.  Rare are the writing projects that write themselves.  Wonderful as they are, they can be a curse, too, because if that happens to you even once, you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing and hoping that it will happen again.  It might.  But then again, it might not.

But even though I don’t really have the answer, I’ve managed to muster some suggestions.  So here we go:

What To Do When You Don’t Have a Clue What You’re Writing

1. Cry.  I am sort of kidding about this, but sort of not.  Crying is very cathartic.

2.  Remember that the only way out is through.  You know what this means. Keep writing.

3.  Trust.  This is related to #2.  You must trust that the story will out, that the cream will rise to the crop, that the….you get the idea.

4.  Go back to the basics and plan.  Ask yourself questions about the characters, or interview them.  Put scenes on 3 by 5 cards and arrange and rearrange them.  Make a plot outline–work fast and just write down everything you know about what happens next.  Or write up some scene guides–noting all the physical details of the scene, who is in it, where it takes place, what will happen, what the scene needs to accomplish and so forth.

5. Take a break.  I know, I know, I’m forever harping about writing regularly.  But once in awhile you can let yourself off the hook and take a little break.  As long as it is the pause that refreshes and not the time you quit working on the novel or screenplay forever.

6.  And finally, for some fresh inspiration, download Chris Guillebeau’s free ebook called, The Art of Nonconformity: A Brief Guide to World Domination.  I think you’ll enjoy it and find it useful.

Writing is Enough

I may have already written about this before–and I reserve the right to write about it again.  Does anyone else have that thing where you forget what you’ve written?  It’s not age, or fading brain cells, it comes from writing a lot and being so present with what I’m writing that I forget everything that has come before.  Or so I tell myself.

But back to the subject at hand, in my continuing effort to master the art of letting go, I’ve been thinking about things I need to let go of in my writing career.  (New age/self-help/energy primer 101–letting go does NOT mean you want to get rid of it, but that you want to get rid of fussing over it, expecting it to happen, requiring it to happen.)  I love every aspect of my writing.  I love writing blog posts, coaching, teaching, and directing the Writer’s Loft.

Most of all, I love writing fiction.  Love, love, love it.  I love every aspect of writing fiction, from brainstorming the initial idea for a novel, to writing the rough draft, rewriting, revising, fussing over it, talking about it–every bit of it.   The most important goal in my life right now is to publish my novel.

But that goal must be secondary to the writing itself or I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.

My wise friend Sue told me on my most recent trip to Nashville that she had realized that writing was in and of itself enough.  That writing is a useful activity that should be encouraged in the world, even if what we write never gets published.  (It is possible to believe this and still desire to get published.)

Sitting down to write is enough.   Doing this is a useful activity that improves the world, even if not one word of what you write ever sees publication.  Why?  To wit:

  • Writing centers you
  • Writing helps you make sense of the world
  • Writing orders your mind
  • Writing helps you to organize your thoughts
  • Writing helps you process emotions

Further, creating stories:

  • Helps you figure out who you are
  • Helps you figure out your world
  • Helps you to find your place in it
  • Helps you to understand others
  • Gives you a moral compass

I’ve often said that I don’t understand how people who don’t write survive in the world.  And it is for all of the above reasons that this is true–writing is a tool, a friend, a habit, a career, and more. 

And using writing for any and all of these activities is, quite simply, enough.

Listening or Waiting to Talk?

One of the best tools a writer can learn is the art of listening.  Actually, learning to listen is a useful tool for any human, period.  I spent the weekend in a workshop with people who had varying degrees of skills in listening, which has had me pondering the subject.

As my good and wise friend (and leader of the workshop) Mary-Suzanne pointed out, most of us spend time waiting to talk instead of actually listening.  I’ve watched other people do this and I know that I myself do it all the time–and I pride myself in being a good listener.

Instead of actually listening and taking in what the other person is saying, our minds race.  We start formulating what we want to say in return, or cataloging all the similar experiences that we have had so that we can talk about them when the other person shuts up.  Or maybe we worry that we don’t have anything to say, or that we’ll be expected to have something to say and nothing will come out.  We worry about what we look like or maybe we’re even worrying about something we did before the current conversation.

If we’re not worrying about ourselves, we may well be judging the person we are supposedly listening to.  We judge the speed of their delivery, or think dire thoughts about the awful outfit they have on.  We judge the funny expressions they make as they talk.  Or the way they are shredding their napkin as they speak.

But all of this is worrying and judging, not listening. 

Why does listening matter to a writer?

Because writers need to observe the world and everything and everyone in it in order to gather material.  Writers need to listen to conversations of others to obtain an ear for dialogue and how people interact with each other.  We need to listen to others in order to understand what it is to be human.  Because, after all, that is what writing is all about–describing the human condition.

So start schooling yourself in the art of listening.  How to do this is a bit harder to describe than telling people they should do this, I will admit.  A quick search of the internet netted mostly descriptions for college students listening to instructors lecture.  But this site seems to have some good advice about interpersonal listening.

The gist of it, of course, is staying present and not letting all your mental chatter distract you, whether that mental chatter is worrying about yourself or judging the speaker.  You might just be surprised what happens when you start listening deeply to the world around you.

Praise is Good and Change is Scary

Geez, things change in an instant.   David Cook is no longer the front-runner to be the next American Idol (but I still think he should be, because he has way more artistic integrity than the pipsqueak David Archuleta and I voted for him a gazillion times anyway) and suddenly the TypePad interface is completely different.  Cool, but completely different.  It always takes me awhile to embrace changes like these.

The above was the Change is Scary part of this post.  Now we get to the important part–the Praise is Good part.  The wonderful Lori devoted an entire blog post to me today.  (Pause for applause, please–I found the new make a link button and guess what?  You can now open it in a new window.) 

Lori won the contest I held awhile back and at first she was going to take a free coaching session as her prize but then she decided to take me up on my offer of reading the first 20 pages of her novel.   It was an absolute pleasure to read her work but I always hold my breath a little after I deliver a critique.  When I read a writer's work I do my utmost to be scrupulously honest and also supportive and encouraging.

The MFA program I attended operated on the principle that a supportive environment is just as good, if not better, at turning out fine writers than a harshly critical one and I like to uphold those values in my own teaching.  However, what might seem supportive and encouraging and honest to me might read as scathing to you–particularly if you are not used to have your work critiqued. 

My most favorite response to a critique is when someone says that it inspired them to get back to the project with renewed vigor and that is what Lori said today.  So I'm basking just as much as Lori is today–its what makes this work I do worthwhile.

Let me also mention the other winners of the contest.  Lauri also sent me the first chapter of her novel and it was great, too.  I don't know what it is with the talented Lauri/Loris who read this blog, but I'm grateful for them.

And finally, I owe Jen and BellaVida coaching sessions.  Email me, you guys! 

Tips For Writing: Overcoming Resistance

I’m taking a quick break from my current ghostwriting project to give you a tip for writing, specifically, overcoming resistance.

But first, I want to remind you to enter my writing contest.  Its easy–all you have to do is answer a few simple questions in the comment area and you’ll be entered in a drawing for the prize of a free coaching session.  The post is called  Another Writing Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems? and you can read it here.

Thank you to everyone who has commented so far–I’ll be responding to comments soon and I so appreciate y’all taking the time to look at the survey.

Now, onto writing resistance.  This is a tip that I learned from my wonderful coach, Tess Daniel, and like everything that she teaches me, it applies to every aspect of life.   But, like pretty much everything that comes my way, I look at it through the lens of writing.

If you are stuck and can’t seem do move yourself forward in your writing project, ask yourself one simple question:

Do I know what the next step is?

Do you know what scene comes next in the novel?  Or what character you need to introduce?  Do you need to rewrite the current chapter before you move forward?  Or do you just need to keep writing and get words on paper? 

The good news is, if you know what the next step is, odds are that you aren’t blocked.  You know what to do, you just aren’t doing it.  At least you have something to work with!  And one way to get yourself to work again is take pen in hand, number a piece of paper from one to ten, and quickly, write all the reasons you are not taking this next step.

One of two things will happen:  you’ll either realize there is a very practical reason that you aren’t taking that step, or you’ll realize that in truth, you were wrong. 

The practical reason is the easy one.  You don’t have a fact you need, or you need to print out the chapter to edit it and you don’t have enough ink in the printer.  That kind of thing.  Once it is committed to paper, its easy to see what you need to do and remedy it.  Sometimes we just get so overwhelmed we go into brain fog and we can’t see the forest for the trees, or the tree for the forest.

If you uncover reason number two, that you were wrong, that’s really not so bad either, because at least now you know.  You might have been laboring under the delusion that your characters needed to go to a funeral, for instance, when in reality that character isn’t dead.

Putting things down on paper has a way of uncovering what you need to know.  But what if you asked yourself the above question,  do I know what the next step is?  and the answer was no?

Well, sorry, you’re out of luck.  No, I’m just kidding.  The wonderful thing about being creative is that there is always an answer.  While not knowing is the wee-est bit more complicated than knowing, it is also in some ways more freeing.  If you don’t know what the answer is, after all, you can make anything up.

And that is what I recommend for not knowing–make it up.    Just pretend you know the answer and write it down.  If you knew what was supposed to happen next in your novel, what would happen?  If that feels like too much pressure, ask yourself what the silliest thing that could possibly happen be?  Write it down.  Go to the thesaurus or dictionary, open it randomly and write down a word.  Now do that two more times and make it into a sentence.  Set your timer for 15 minutes and write.  The idea here is to start writing, in case you hadn’t guessed.  Start putting words on paper and see what happens.

This is a gentle way to trick the brain.  No pressure, no worries about figuring what is supposed to happen next in the novel (or your life, for that matter).  All you are doing is playing with words, putting them down on paper.

It may take several of these brain-tricking Not Really Writing Sessions in order for the old brain to start feeling comfortable enough to engage with the novel or short story or article you are trying to write, but eventually it will.

And now that I have given my brain a bit of a break, I’m off to work on the ghosting project again.