Awhile back a friend from my writing group asked for a kick in the ass for her writing because she found herself procrastinating about it, afraid to write, unable to find the time to write, worried about what people would think about what she wrote, and possibly even afraid that if she wrote it would amount to nothing so why bother writing? Here’s her email:
“Trusted writer lady friends,
I am writing you because not only am I in the midst of a little writers’ block, but more because the block seems to be coming from some little voice in me wanting to know “What’s the point?”. It also informs me that this whole idea of writing a memoir or collection of personal essays is stupid, because, clearly the world is on fire and that’s all I have to offer? That’s it? Wow, that’s helpful.
I also know that if I don’t buckle down and work toward this, that I will resent myself for the rest of my life.
I know I’m a good writer.
I know I have the potential to be a better writer. I know that when it comes to artistic pursuits I am either a meanderer or a chickenshit.
I know my life is more than half over and it’s time to get to work. Help.
Kicks in the ass or loving words of encouragement are welcome.”
She wanted a kick, which I saw as another opportunity to write something, so I sent her my wordy, meandering kicks:
“Okay, prepare yourself for a loving kick in the ass of kind encouragement. You are a good writer! I admire you for your accomplishments as a playwright, a director and a writer. Because you are a writer, you have moments of self-doubt and introspection that can be either debilitating or fodder for material. The choice is up to you.
I have to use all of these tricks below or else I don’t write. The list of brain hacks grows everyday for me, because I adapt to the old methods and find ways around them. Some of it will probably strike you as hogwash, because to be honest, a lot of it does to me too. But as my crazy yoga teacher says right after he has said something outrageously metaphysical and unscientific, “If you don’t believe me, just believe me enough to try it.”
- Get in touch with your inner stoic. Nothing ever happens without heroic, exhausting amounts of effort. So I embrace my crappy office space. I relish the odd hours when I can cram in some writing. If its in my car while I’m waiting out a thunderstorm, all the better. If I’m stealing 3 extra minutes in the bathroom while people pound on the door, then so be it. The harder it is for me to get it done, the sweeter the victory when it is. Sometimes I make it purposefully more difficult for myself and it works. I’ll write when I am cold or hungry or tired. It won’t necessarily be better writing but I want it more. Make writing harder.
- Enrich your environment. I do this in a lot of ways. I go to writer’s things (with you), I listen to podcasts about writing (Just listened to All Write Already this morning and got a good jolt from it). I meet with writer friends a lot, read blogs about writing, read books about writing, write about writing, write about not writing, write in my journal. I guess what I’m saying is make writing a mental illness that taunts you. Immerse yourself in it with every spare second. Every elevator ride and every minute of free time waiting for someone else needs to be about writing. The best ideas come out under pressure anyway.
- Don’t just inspire yourself, look for mentors and mentor others. You already do this by teaching. But find people who are prolific-writer’s group, another writer you admire, a writer’s twitter feed or book or podcast or whatever. Try their tricks.
- Use multiple platforms. Small notebooks for the dentist’s office, big ones for long weekends camping, Ipad for cafes. Bedside journal. Bathroom journal. Dropbox stories. Laptop writing. Voice memo writing. Hired stenographer in the car. Don’t get stuck without the ability to put your thoughts down as they occur. No place or platform is too weird and no thought is too stupid. Because stupid thoughts just get you used to the idea that you can record your thoughts, and they usually lead to less stupid ideas. This trick also makes you a better stoic because you do a lot of rewriting of scribbled thoughts in to better platforms. Embrace the written chaos and harness it when needed.
- Don’t be a chickenshit! Write stuff that scares you. You do this really well already, but I have to remind myself of that all of the time. Write honestly about stuff that you are afraid someone will hate you for. The more uncomfortable you feel when writing it or releasing it to the world, the more honest or personal it is-the more bile that your are hocking up-the better it is as the link to our humanity as fellow screw-ups or people striving to not be screw-ups. Anyone who can’t accept that about your writing can go watch a sitcom instead of reading.
- Don’t keep doing the same thing. If it isn’t working, then try every other thing you can think of. When I got stuck on a story I was typing I tried writing it by hand and it came flying out. If your house is too tense, go to the yard or a bar. If writing a memoir isn’t working, write a poem about the same topic. If you have no ideas that day, do free writing, type the letter P 50 times. Journal. Do anything different that could jolt you out of writer’s block. Write a letter or a twitter post or write down your dream from the night before. It’s all inspiration. I start writing about one thing and throw it away when I realize what I really wanted to write about.
- Make time every day for this. You don’t actually have to write anything of value and if you do you don’t have to finish it. But figure out the night before what point of your day will be open for writing and then make it happen. Produce random words if you must, but complete the ritual of making the time no matter what or how feebly. It starts to feel sacred after awhile.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Artists always beat themselves up to some extent. But don’t waste much energy on it. If something doesn’t work, move on to the next thing. You will come back to the other thing someday. If your brain is fried from the topic and you still have time to write, write something completely different. The best stuff gets written while trying to avoid other stuff you are writing. Why on earth would we waste time feeling guilty about that? If the end result isn’t what you hoped for, consider it a work-in-progress. Or tear it up like a temperamental artist-but always back up your work first.
- Don’t let your brain take you down the rabbit hole of distractions. Every time I need a synonym for a word and open my web browser I end up checking Facebook or my email. I used to stray down the path for hours. Sometimes it derailed my work but other times I realized it was just a way to mentally check out from an intense problem for a bit. Now I let myself stray for less than a minute and pop back in, sometimes it works. Other times I need to pull out a notebook to stay on task.
- When you can’t write, brainstorm, organize old writing, set goals, edit, rewrite, administer, submit work, challenge yourself with dumb shit like a one paragraph story or a writing prompt. If you find yourself resenting the act of those things, it is because you are once again avoiding writing the thing you want to write. So stop and write it then.
- Find flow. Flow is the hardest thing to access, but when you find it, things just write themselves. There are a bunch of resources out there about how to make flow happen rather than just letting it descend upon you in the form of inspiration. There is a theory that many artists are depressive sorts because they have natural flows in creativity but haven’t figured out how to make it happen on command. I can’t make it happen on purpose. I’m not giving up though, because sometimes I stumble in to flow just via play-take out a yo-yo or dance or doodle kind of play. After 10 minutes of that, I am in the mood to transfer that play in to writing energy.
If none of these help you to write, I suggest you write your own list of helpful ways to make yourself write. Don’t forget to share it with me at writer’s group if you do because my brain is already adapting to these hacks and needs new methods.”