Many apologies for Friday’s missing post. Due to the heaviest snowfall we have had in decades here in Western Scotland, we had no power from 7am Friday morning until Sunday afternoon. I am still marooned at home, unable to get through the deep snow in my drive, despite much shovelling. I am also dealing with the damage to our our garden trees by the weight of the snow and a book proposal for a publisher that must not be late. As a result there will only be one post this week and next week. I will be back on form again soon. I hope you understand.
Problem: What can I do when I don’t feel inspired, when I don’t know where to start, or when my life’s been turned upside down and I feel blocked? When it’s hard to write, how do I get myself going again?
When you can’t make a start at all:
This is often called Writer’s Block and it can be caused by a variety of things: fear of failure, unhappiness, pressure of time or lack of confidence. Some of you will have ideas but maybe they don’t feel good enough. It is important for you to realize that they ARE good enough but they are a starting point and you need to get writing to be able to explore all the possible ways in which you might develop them. The most important thing is to dispel negative thoughts and sneak up on your writing project by giving your brain something work on; something absorbing that will remove pressure and allow you to enjoy yourself a little.
Make a Page more Welcoming: Use coloured paper, doodle around the edges of the page so it no longer pristine. At the top of the page put Writing Practice or Rough Pages.That will give you permission to write something that is unfinished and imperfect. Give the Word Police the week off.
Change the way you work: Don’t write in sentences or lines, at least not at first. Make shapes and write thoughts, ideas, dialogue, or notes on character, inside them. Keep a rough book just for this. Arrange your work in clusters. I don’t know why I always thought I had to write in a linear way. It was a revelation to discover that I could choose my own ways to record my ideas.
Start small: It’s so easy to frighten yourself by looking too far ahead. Remind yourself that your idea doesn’t have to be about anything in particular right now but will very likely turn out to be about something as you go, as you keep adjusting bits to see what it could be about. Start with something short and not too demanding, like the outline of a single scene, for example. You can add more later. Most writers are rewriters.
Write a letter: This should take the focus away from yourself and towards a potential audience. Invent one that fits your needs. Tell your story to them. Then try being the audience, on the receiving end of your words. Alternatively, write a letter to a friend explaining your problem, what you want to achieve and the obstacles you face. You may discover an unexpected way forward.
Find Inspiration in small things: Make brief diary entries, write short pieces of poetry based on daily thoughts, read poems. I keep a scrap book of poems I love, and reread them to inspire me and encourage me to write deeper.
Make Lists: Try for example, things I saw this morning and things I didn’t see; what is here and what is not here; things I should say and things I shouldn’t say. Deena Metzger, in her book ‘Writing for Your Life’, maintains that “what is invisible to us, does matter.”
When it seems as if there’s no time to write….so you don’t…
Ask Why? Spend five minutes writing down why not writing is to your advantage, to uncover what lies behind this ‘refusal’ to write. Could it be that, deep down, you feel it’s selfish or frivolous; that you should be doing something more important; that there are chores you should complete first? It is unlikely that you will leave this world wishing you had done more chores, so see if you can work past your obstacles to writing. In an exercise on p20 of ‘The Five-Minute Writer’, Marget Geraghty suggests you complete these three sentences:
I am not writing because….
The reason I can’t overcome this is …
A benefit I am getting from not writing is…
Now switch these sentences from a negative to a positive. If you wrote, “I am not writing because I am afraid of making embarrassing mistakes”, turn this into “I know I have to make mistakes to learn and improve.” Give yourself permission to rebel and write for five or ten minutes each day, in spite of the obstacles.
Create a conversation: Have two imaginary voices each argue their own case, until a compromise is reached. Bring in a third character if you need to.
(NB: The ideas in the first section will help in this section, too.)
When you can’t start because you don’t know what to write about:
Warm Up with Exercises: Choose warm up exercises to relax your way into writing and give your imagination wings. Dorothea Brande,Virginia Woolf and more recently, Natalie Goldberg, have all recommended writing for a period each day. Choose an image, feeling or memory, set a timer for five minutes and put all your thoughts down on paper swiftly and without a pause, without stopping to correct or re-read. This is said to prevent blocks by tapping into your subconscious and preventing your inner critic time to intervene. The following day, choose a word or phrase from what you have written and write about that for a further five minutes. You can use the same technique for thoughts on a story.
Kate Grenville in her ‘The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers’ suggests choosing emotive words and phrases. Try “Yesterday, I” or “On Sundays..” or “I remember…”. Have a look at Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Writing Down the Bones’ and ‘Wild Mind’, Marget Geraghty’s ‘The Five-Minute Writer’ and Naomi Epel’s ‘The Observation Deck’. Their exercises will generate plenty of useable material when you are stuck for a subject.
Visualise: Write from what you feel rather than what you think. Forget about working out meaning and go with your imagination instead. Try some visualization exercises. You will find a useful one called ‘Losing Your Mind’ in the book entitled ‘What If?’ by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
When you have confidence in your idea but feel overwhelmed and can’t begin:
Start anywhere: It doesn’t have to be the beginning. Begin with an episode that intrigues or excites you and work backwards and forwards from that. Ezra Pound said it isn’t important which leg of the table gets made first, as long as the table can stand up on it’s own eventually.
Push out a whole draft: Banish interruptions and get the whole story down in writing, however badly. Once you have it down on paper, you can make changes, swap bits around, expand or reduce it. You can do this for a novel but it would obviously take much longer.
Make a plan: This won’t suit everyone but if you have a definite idea, you can set yourself SMART targets (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound) to make good progress. Start, not with “I am going to write a novel” but with “I am going to create my main character by the end of this week.” Choose what you want to accomplish, and by when. Then create a series of steps that will get you there, for example, “I am going to spend twenty minutes finding a name for my character.” Make each step achievable within the time you have set aside for it, and stick to your plan. Alternatively, plan your story in note form or on index cards that you can move around. Once you have a flexible backbone, you can start wherever you want.
Next Post: ‘Hurrah for Small Beginnings’ – Well I’ve started but where, exactly, is my beginning?