Loved, Chosen, and Writing (for the Forseeable Future) at 5 a.m.—A Lesson from Anne Lamott

Anne-Lamott-2013-San-Francisco--Wikimedia Commons--ZboralskiI just returned from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, featuring such diverse writers as Luci Shaw, Richard Foster, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott and offering sessions on everything from how to write a book proposal to self-publishing, writing about trauma to writing novels, writing children’s books to writing faithfully about sex. Some sessions were practical, others funny, some heady, some worshipful. All inspired and challenged me. Several offered strategies I’ve taken to heart and will pass on to my students.

The best advice, from Anne Lamott, was the simplest and hardly new or profound. She must have said it twenty times during a characteristically hilarious and solipsistic one-hour interview—which surged pell-mell in and out of her various addictions, the gift of desperation, her cellulite-pocked thighs, people she appreciates (those who give her even more cream for her coffee, for example) and those she avoids (e.g., those who claim you can’t have fear and faith simultaneously), her love of desserts and coffee with massive amounts of cream (Did I mention that already?), the interminably lost and sought jetliner on CNN in her hotel room, and the good news that we’re “loved and chosen” (a refrain I’m already aware of reiterated apropos to nothing that I could tell but nevertheless causing tears to start from my eyes each time)—and it was the same advice I’ve encountered whenever I’ve heard her talk or reread her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Still, like that loved and chosen refrain, it seized me anew each time she said it. It was this: All it takes to write is to sit down and do it.

She put forth several ancillary recommendations. That you can’t wait for your toddlers to start school or your teens to leave home. That you don’t need an office, just a door that closes. That you have to say no, nicely, to the dogs, cats, and kids at that door, who are attracted like heat-seeking missiles to your lap (or thighs or cellulite, I can’t remember). That all one needs—not only in writing but in everything (“Anything I know about anything,” she observed, “applies to everything else.”) is structure and discipline. That, for the past four years, she’s turned off her cellphone and written every day, at the same exact time (9 a.m.), no matter what.

“Give me an hour!” she kept demanding—as if she were our mom and we her teenage wastrels—and pointing out all the junk we waste our time on each day. Though I’ve written and revised and published five books, I still need this reminder, this goad to get after it.

“You’ve got an hour! Give me that hour!” she yelled, as though we would be writing just for her.

And truly, inspired as I was by that simple call to quit dallying, I really feel as though I’m writing, right now, for Anne alone.

Farmland_and_Airbus_Beluga_near_Cop_House_Farm_-_geograph_org_uk_-_446678I planned out that hour—or maybe two, since, as she said, you’ll really only get forty usable minutes out of an hour, only an hour and twenty minutes out of two—all the way back to Oklahoma. In the seats at my gate, on the tarmac waiting in vain to take off, back in those airport seats after deplaning because of weather in Chicago (Who knew you couldn’t take off on a runway perpendicular to the wind direction?), through the murky clouds over Illinois and Missouri and Arkansas, in the car snailing the empty roads at midnight with my cautious husband.

“I’m gonna write as soon as I get up,” I told him. “Before I run. Before I do any grading or reading. Get me up at five, when you get up, but don’t talk to me. Just give me my coffee and let me write.”

Don’t worry: I’m a morning person. And with our dogs living outdoors and daughters away at college, I can write in my non-office—the living room—without even the closeable door Lamott requires. If my gaze strays from my computer screen, I’ll see the sun turn the horizon pink. Every single day. At this rate, I’ll get my novel drafted before summer’s end and revised and sent off sometime before moving on, loved and chosen, to a heaven of no distractions from what I should be doing.

Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.

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.

Around The Block With Writer’s Block

do-not-write-in-this-spaceSome people say that writer’s block is what gets the housework done, but if that were true, my house would sparkle and shine.

My vitamins would be alphabetized from A to Zinc, my nightstand drawer would contain no crumpled tissues of questionable provenance, and the frisky lint bunnies behind the dryer would now be reproducing in the rubbish bin.

For me, writer’s block doesn’t get the housework done, but it is what keeps the Internet humming along. And I don’t only turn to the Internet as a writer’s avoidance behavior, either. Hanging out online may prolong the blocked condition somewhat, but if I give the Web even half a chance, it eventually provides the cure I so desperately crave.

First, of course, there’s Facebook. Like other writers, I’m lonely. Ye Olde Writer’s Cave is dank and dreary and its stalagmites stab at my soul. But scrolling through my news feed–replete with photos of gregarious dogs who say funny stuff, sullen cats pictured splayed across Other Writers’ Keyboards, and videos of friends’ new grandbabies–brings me to my senses fast. There are worse things than loneliness.

Like wordlessness. And booklessness. And publisherlessness. Oh, my.

If Facebook somehow fails to snap me out of writer’s block, I click over to Pinterest. Within seconds, I’m immersed in a fantasy world of exotic locations, bohemian wardrobes, hunky men (some of my Pinterest friends are edgy with their pinning!), gorgeous homes, and just desserts.

It’s the desserts that get to me, if anything on Pinterest can. I’ve read that even viewing a luscious treat can cause–in some susceptible individuals–an insulin response with corresponding weight gain.

Let’s just say I’m highly susceptible.

When I literally feel my bottom-in-chair growing larger while innocently viewing the ingredients list for yet another bacon-intensive appetizer, I know I’m a site closer to loosening the block’s grip on me. One more stop on the Internet and I’ll be home free and back to cranking out another chapter.

I know exactly where to go, too.

If I truly can’t find two words to put together, my fingers click over to Craigslist, the piece de resistance in breaking the back of writer’s block.

Now, not just any category on Craigslist will do. I skip the ads for RVs and energy-deficient major appliances and ancient treadle sewing machines. I have no use for the personal ads, and discussion forums about dying and haiku aren’t really my thing.

Instead, I wallow in the hundreds of jobs on offer, immerse myself in the positions I could be applying for that might surreptitiously scratch my writer’s itch, that might anesthetize the pain I experience when I’m not doing my real job. The job I’m meant to do. Putting down glorious words, one after the other, preferably in the best possible order.

Can I hope to find employment as satisfying as writing is on a bad day, a job that could truly replace my need to write?

I pass over the ad for an exotic dancer for bachelor parties, but not without thinking of that Facebook poster that shows two gals dancing—one young and agile and the other old and clumsy. The captions read, “How You Think You Look” and “How You REALLY Look.”

Then I skim this heading: “Bilingual Interpreters Wanted! Spanish and Many Other Languages!” But somehow “many other languages” seems like Triglingual Interpreters Wanted. Or perhaps Quadlingual or Quintlingual, not that it matters. I only speak English with a smattering of adorable French phrases thrown in, mostly on the topic of finding the salle de bain closest to my train’s platform.

Being reminded of my obsession with locating the bathroom (in as many languages as necessary) draws me to another ad, this time seeking a participant in a medical study about urinary incontinence. It offerers $1200 compensation for time and travel expenses, plus a generous Depends allowance. I shake my head in dismay.

“You’re all wet,” I say to myself, a victim of my own dry wit. “These jobs aren’t for you. Maybe you should start with finishing this blog post, and then see what happens next?”

Before I shut down Craigslist, my eyes fall on one last ad.

“Surrogate Mothers Needed! Earn $28,000 and Up!!!!!” I feel a visceral (if latent) nurturing instinct flow through me while reading the job description. The money is certainly tempting, but then it hits me. They’re probably looking for someone with a uterus. There’s always a catch.

So that settles it. I’m a writer, and getting caught in a bad job won’t fix that. Only writing will. Once again, the Internet’s cured me of a vicious case of writer’s block.

This time, I hope, for good.

Do you suffer bouts of writer’s block? Any cures you’d like to share?

Why I Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

It’s one of the most oft-asked questions I get as a writer and teacher: “What can I do about writer’s block?”

“Write,” I say. (I was going say, “Simple. Write.” Alas, I realize it isn’t simple. It isn’t easy.)

I tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block.

The PCT heading toward Oregon's Collier Cone.
The PCT heading toward Oregon’s Collier Cone.

Do the words sometimes come harder than at other times — or hardly at all? Sure.

Do you sometimes need to change things up to feel the mojo again? Sure.

Do you sometimes crave the idea of skipping that 5 a.m. appointment with your keyboard? Sure.

But this idea that we can’t move forward until the muse returns with open arms — no, that’s a crock. Basing your writing on feelings is no better than basing your life on feelings.

Sometimes you just have to power your way through.

It’s that way with anything we do. But writers seem to have created something of a self-fulfilling failure prophecy, a challenge apparently so insurmountable that we’ve given it an official name. And once something is named, it becomes an official malady.

Read: An excuse.

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “plumber’s block” should the guy fixing my pipes suddenly find the going difficult. “Sorry, pal,” he might say as he gathers up his tools — and, of course, hitches up his, ahem, jeans. “Just not feeling it today.”

I don’t believe in writer’s block anymore than I believe in “surgeon’s block” should the doctor doing my knee operation find herself stymied. “Hey, Bob, hang in there. I’m going to flex out the rest of the day. Maybe catch a matinee to see if I can get back in the groove, you know?”

That’s not to say there aren’t things you can do to get yourself “unstuck.” Sometimes I’ll go back and read my piece from the beginning. Explain my plight to someone who knows my story with hopes they can jar something lose. Maybe even take a walk.

But this idea that you somehow need to wait until the “feeling” returns is bunk.

Ernest Hemingway said it well: “Easy writing makes hard reading. Hard writing makes easy reading.” Jack London claimed to have written 20 hours a day.

Part of writing is discipline. Is doggedly moving on. Is writing on even if the results aren’t perfect. Even when it hurts. Even when you’d rather be doing something else.

So, today’s efforts might not have rung your literary chimes. But they count for something. You persevered. To quit whenever it hurts it to make it that much easier to quit the next time. A lesson I learned while hiking the 452-mile Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail: “You must go when your body says no.” With writing, you must go when your mind says no.

Just last week, after a speech, someone in the audience asked me which of my books I’d written was my favorite. “They’re like children,” I said. “Each one is my favorite for a different reason. But the one I’m proudest of is American Nightingale because nothing in my nearly four decades of journalism has come with more difficulty. Nearly four years from idea on a Wendy’s napkin to seeing it on a Barnes & Noble shelf.” (I captured that research, writing, and promotional experience in a subsequent book, Pebble in the Water.)

Sometimes I draw inspiration from fellow writers. I do a lot of 5-a.m.-to-9 a.m. book writing before I go off to be a newspaper columnist. If my alarm goes off and I don’t want to get up I remember my novelist friend Jane Kirkpatrick and think this: Jane has already been on her keyboard for an hour.

Or because I write a lot about inspirational people, I’ll think about something they soldiered through — war, disease, the death of a loved one — and think to myself: Buck up, pal. This is just stringing together words. You’ve got it easy. 

Hands and Knees Navigation

“Perhaps the greatest achievement of writing is to become less sure of oneself.”
~ Brian Doyle

The aged rarely hurry. Time and use and strain deplete muscle and bone and marrow of youth’s vigor, suffusing the void with a dichotomy of uncertainty and wisdom which beg measured steps.

Writing likewise begs an unhurried pace. My fingers manage about 70 words per minute when I transcribe the exact words of someone else. My own thoughts might read in my mind with equal clarity and run toward a clear destination, but they’ll crowd over one another and onto a page at a somewhat slower WPM.

What’s more likely is a meeting between a sheet of white before my eyes, strands of understanding and feelings in my mind and heart, and a gripping compulsion in my soul to bring concrete shape to the altogether abstract. My fingers then wander and grasp for each word as they crawl across the page.

For fiction and non-fiction alike, whether my outline and components are defined with precise or rough edges, the navigation of crawling requires the use of both hands and knees. Whatever gift I have, however developed my writing craft, no amount of raw talent and polished skill can bridge the spiritual and mortal without divine empowerment.

“I am like a little pencil in God’s hand. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it.”
~ Mother Teresa

Do I believe I can present some worthy work that originates with me? Or do I simply offer myself to God, asking Him to use me for His work?

If our writing is His means of conveying stories and ideas and a purpose bigger than the entertainment or information transfer we’d otherwise compose, then allowance must be made for God to be actively engaged in our writing.

The suggestion to pray throughout the process of writing may be stating the obvious to you, or it may be a great new idea. Either way, this reminder comes with a few practical pointers:

• Before sitting down to write, check with the Lord for other priorities.
• If writer’s block strikes, be still and wait for the Lord’s leading.
• Allow God to take an idea in another direction than you had in mind.
• Edit with a spiritual eye, asking God’s Spirit what is pleasing to Him.
• Work toward deadlines with intentional room for chats with the Lord.
• Seek God to resolve conflict (with schedule, editor, outline, etc.).
• Prioritize time with God’s Word to sharpen your power with words.
• Shelve preconceived ideas of God’s intent and timing for the end product.
• Recognize, thank, and praise the Lord for every blessing along the way.
• Before considering a work complete, ask God if you missed anything.

[May God] make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.
Amen.
~ Hebrews 13:21 (NKJV)

What other specific elements bring the Lord into your writing?
Do you have a testimony of God at work through your words?

How I Learned to Beat Writer’s Block

Image Credit: Studio-Annika / http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=773765My first year as a soon-to-be-published author was nothing less than a baptism of fire.

When I received my contract to write How To Do Everything with HTML, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.

Oh, I knew I was going to write a computer book.

What I didn’t know was that the whole process would be done at a pace that bordered on insane.

Because technology changes so quickly, computer books are produced on a much faster timetable than other books. Otherwise, they can be obsolete before they ever hit bookstore shelves. The ink on my contract had barely dried when my editor e-mailed me and asked me to develop a chapter delivery schedule.

I had 20 weeks to write a 600+ page book.

If that weren’t stressful enough, I discovered that the entire writing, editing, rewrite, and proofing process would take place simultaneously.

It went something like this: For week number one, I had to write my first chapter. That included more than just writing the text. I also had to develop the HTML code. And I had to design and create all my own illustrations. After I turned in chapter one, the next week I turned my attention to the second chapter.

Like chapter one, I had to write the text, code, and illustrations. But I also had an additional task.

I had to incorporate tech edits for chapter one.

The publisher had graciously hired a technical editor who went through my HTML code and found all the bugs. Then he kicked the file back to me so that I could fix it. Thus, in the second week I had to write a 20-30 page chapter, create the computer code, design and produce my own illustrations, and incorporate the tech edits from chapter one.

Then things got even more challenging.

By about the fifth week I began to receive copy edits. So now my weekly workload involved writing a new chapter, developing the HTML code, designing and creating my own illustrations, incorporating tech edits from previous chapters, and reviewing copy edits from previous chapters.

I didn’t think it could get any worse.

It did.

About three quarters of the way through the project, page proofs began to come in, chapter by chapter. So in the last month or so, every week I had to write a new chapter, develop code, design illustrations, fix bugs, review copy edits, and correct page proofs.

It was like running down a railroad track with a mountain on one side, a cliff on the other and a locomotive breathing down my neck.

By the time I reviewed my last page proof, I felt like I’d just finished the writer’s version of the Ironman triathlon. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I sent off that final file.

A sinking feeling followed that sigh of relief.

I was ready for a long rest, but that would have to wait. About halfway through the project I’d suggested an idea for a follow-up book on Cascading Style Sheets (a related language that works hand-in-hand with HTML). The publisher liked the idea, gave me a new contract, and told me to get started right away.

For another 20 weeks, I kept running down that railroad track.

It was an exhausting process, but I’m thankful that my first books were produced this way. The schedule was brutal, particularly for a brand new writer. But I learned a valuable lesson.

I learned that I never need to let writer’s block defeat me and that I can produce consistently every week. There were many days when I didn’t feel like writing. However, because of the breakneck pace and tight production schedule, I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or give in to writer’s block.

I had to produce.

If I gave in to writer’s block, then the next week I would have twice as much work.

And so I wrote.

For me, writing two computer books in the space of nine months was like boot camp. The publisher put me through the wringer.

But in the process, I learned how to deal with writer’s block.

I sit down and write.

Do you struggle with writer’s block? Or have you developed a way to deal with it?

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

Image

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!

Image

*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.

Image

(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.