*When Throats are Parched: Writing (On Deadline) In the Land of Drought

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Years ago I crossed the Sahara desert the back of a truck. No GPS. No roads, no signs—we followed the train tracks. We did have a crude map with water holes marked. We’d get to the hole or the well—and it would be dry. We’d set out for the next one—and it was dry. Our water supply got lower every day and was closely rationed. At one point we were lost for three days. And we were on deadline—we had to get to Kenya before the rainy season started.

That’s what the writing life can feel like at times, yes? The stations of usual refreshment aren’t open; we’re getting drier and drier; the manuscript is withering. We’re plain out stuck. Here are some sources of “stuckness,” and suggestions to get you moving back to the watering holes!

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*You’re STUCK because you’ve been seduced by your own luscious language.

You’ve followed a trail of language, lured by its sound, rhythm, maybe even its profundity. Soon—you’re sunk. In love. In a trap.  No water. No trail, no way out.

*Get UNSTUCK  by leaving the page. Free yourself by taking your core idea (or character) off the page and walking it out in the world. Wrestle with its logic, its meaning, until you can articulate the concept clearly in new language and out loud. You’ll find it much easier to break your “engagement” with your sand trapped manuscript.

*You’re STUCK  because there’s dissonance between form and content.

Maybe you committed to a form or a genre or a particular structure too soon before fully exploring your content. (We do this when hurrying under deadlines!) When we externally impose an ill-fitting form upon our material, we’ll soon find ourselves and our manuscript immobilized.

*Get UNSTUCK  by returning to the exploration stage and really listening to the work itself, teasing out from its deepest levels the organic  form/genre/structure that best illuminates its meaning.

*You’re STUCK because of the limits of your genre.

Every genre is an attempt to discover and construct some form of knowledge. But every genre has limits. Narrative finds meaning through sequence, context, causality. By its very definition it reveals order—and potentially meaning—from the disorder of our lives. But sequence and causality don’t tell the whole story. Poetry relies heavily upon metaphor, imagery, the moment, sensation, but poetry may miss the truths that narrative can discover. Each needs the other at some point.

*Get UNSTUCK by changing genres (for a short time). We need to stay open to new truths as we write. If you’re stuck on the chapter in your memoir about your mother’s death, write a poem about the day she died. If your poem is stalled, try writing a short story or a vignette about something related that happened to you.  You will see, hear, and process memories in new ways when entering a new genre.

Let’s admit it—writing is an unnatural act. Sitting at your keyboard for hours on end every day is like crossing the desert. You have to find ways to rehydrate and rehumanize this most glorious of labors.  So I end with these final admonishments:

*Ask for an extension. Believe it or not, most writers do this at some point. There’s no shame in it. Your editor wants you to produce the best material possible. It’s not always possible, but getting a little more time can magically create a breakthrough.

*Go to bed early. Eat. Exercise. Drink yummy beverages. Be nice to yourself.

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(The end of my Sahara story. We made it out, but I never wrote about it—just a single poem. I was too parched to write.)

*A VERY condensed form of my presentation at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing April 20. More helpful details here.

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About leslieleylandfields

Leslie is the multi-award winning author/editor of 10 creative nonfiction books, including Crossing the Waters, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, The Spirit of Food, and Surviving the Island of Grace. She is the founder of the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, a writers' workshop led with Phillip Yancey, Ann Voskamp and many others. She leads writing retreat and speaks around the world on matters of theology, forgiveness, creativity, culture, family and food. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she works in commercial fishing with her husband, her daughter and five sons.