Writing Aversion Disorder

I am currently suffering from writer’s block—or, to use a term more descriptive of how it actually feels on the rare instances when it seizes me, Writing Aversion Disorder (WAD), an ailment of much more serious proportions than mere blockage. Pointless No Entry sigh--James YardleyIt’s not just that I can’t think of anything to say or don’t like what I do say or even that the words are there but just won’t emerge from my brain or fingers onto the virtual page. Rather, I’m incapable of even approaching my computer. The thought of writing nauseates me.

As such, I’m late posting this month, which has surely not endeared me to the tireless and underappreciated editors of this blog. We’re supposed to set our posts two weeks early to give them time to look our writing over before letting it loose into the blogosphere. I feel bad about my sloth. I can’t help it, though. I’m in a bad way.

It should be good writing time for me. As a professor, I have summers off, and, with both daughters occupied with faraway internships, I’ve had big writerly plans this summer. I’m right in the middle—the most exciting part, where all the narrative strands start coming together—of a novel-in-progress, and my goal, before WAS set in, was to get ’er drafted by summer’s end.

Now my goal is to do anything but write. Read. Relearn “Minuet in G Minor” and “Für Elise” from my year of piano lessons as a child. String beads from stashes I found in my daughters’ rooms to make gaudy bracelets for myself and them. Play Spider Solitaire on my new phone. (My brother recently clued me in on how to Control-Z back to a game’s beginning to avoid wrecking my win-percentage.) Clean my deceased mother-in-law’s house down the road. (I’m not joking: I spent all day yesterday there, sorting, tossing, soaping, scrubbing.) Weed my garden out in the hot sun.

Raised bed--photo by SrlI was thinking about this problem as I crouched, hands in the dirt, today, and it occurred to me that, while I usually love working in the garden, even weeding, I’m also overcome on occasion by Gardening Aversion Disorder (GAD)—surely related to WAD. So, with no other blog post in view, I decided to examine what triggered my GAD episodes for anything that might illuminate and, ideally, solve my current dilemma.

Here’s what I came up with: I suffer from GAD when tasks or trips have taken me away from the garden for bit and, upon my return, everything has gotten out of control. Vegetables need harvesting, many having overgrown their tastiness. Itchy weeds carpet the gravel paths between the beds. Sand fleas have made lace of my eggplant leaves; my bean vines are encrusted in ants; my tomato plants are speckled with big black beetles. I know I have to regain control but don’t know where to start.

The answer to my own question—where to start—is to not ask it in the first place. Don’t look, I tell myself. Just leap! Whatever task I choose, my gardening soul has learned to believe, will be more productive, more creative, than wallowing in indecision.

Maybe I don’t want to write, I speculated, because I’ve lost control and uncertain where to start in reclaiming it. And, indeed, as soon as I thought these words, I knew them to be true. That little lightbulb of insight was all I needed.

Perhaps, I thought—or hoped, or both—I need to quit trying to figure what part to work on next and just do whatever comes to hand.

And somehow, having just that much—that little—of a plan sent me back to my desk to dash off this post and then leap back into story.

Seeking a Revelation

source: Fotolia via MS Office

We’ve all been there—happily plowing through a manuscript when we’re suddenly brought to a squealing halt. Or maybe it comes on gradually, like so much mud solidifying as we try to trudge through until we find ourselves frozen in place, blinking at the ground and wondering what happened.  It could be our outline didn’t foresee all it might have, or we wandered down an unexpected path only to find it’s a dead end. Or perhaps our characters took on lives of their own and staged a coup when we weren’t looking. However we got there, we’re stuck, and being stuck mid-project is no fun. So what’s a writer to do? 

We could ditch the whole thing. Occasionally that is the right answer, but being persistent writerly-types, thank goodness that’s not our first inclination. There are lots of ways to get unstuck which leave us with a better manuscript in the end. Here are my top five:

  • Walk away for at least 30 days. It never ceases to amaze me how insightful this can be. When you’re writing, you’re close to the material. You leave a part of you on the page, and sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Many writers know this, and they take frequent steps back from their material in the hopes of approaching it later with a less familiar eye. It’s tempting to think a week or two is sufficient, and sometimes it is. But if you’re really stuck, I highly recommend walking away for a full month to get a truly fresh perspective. That distance can do wonders for improving your writing on the next go-round.
Source: Wikipedia
  • Ask for help. While many writers recognize the value of a critique group for the craft side of writing, I’m surprised how few ask for help with storyline. Asking for help does not make you weak. It makes you resourceful. I recently rewrote the entire end to my novel because an editor thought it predictable. I asked a trusted critique partner for help. She brainstormed with her daughter (this was a YA story) and came up with a slew of possibilities. One contained the thread of an idea I ultimately spun into a much better ending. And let’s not forget the power of prayer. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and asking for guidance from above is simultaneously humbling and empowering. Just remember to let go of any preconceived ideas and be open to whatever form inspiration may take.
  • Print it. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but it works. Seeing your work in print is strangely insightful. You will plainly see things you don’t when looking at it on the computer.
  • Push through. To put it bluntly, give yourself permission to write crap. Knowing the next chapter or two will be ‘throw away’ material is incredibly freeing. It takes the pressure off and lets you work through the block. Not everything you write needs to be brilliant. You’re not going to go with that first or second draft anyway, right? So give yourself permission to make a mess before you refine it all.
  • Read in your chosen genre or non-fiction category. Some writers worry if they do this they’ll either find someone beat them to the punch or they’ll inadvertently pick up another author’s voice or idea. In the case of the former, you’re better off knowing this sooner than later so you can make your story stand out as different. In the latter, you can influence this: you’re a disciplined, creative being, not a machine that regurgitates what you’ve read without your knowledge. The benefits of understanding what’s successful (or not) in your chosen field far outweigh the possible risks. Read—and keep a pencil handy for when the revelation hits.

How do you get through when you find yourself ‘stuck’ during a writing project?

Third Day Give Me a Revelation

*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.