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Thursday, January 07, 2016

On overcoming writer's block, one word at a time

True confession time: sometimes I get stuck with my writing. Most commonly, I get overwhelmed. I do not have a grand solution to writer's block; if I did, I would have posted on this blog every day this year, as I had intended to before January 1st, but clearly didn't happen. I did have two articles come out this week (although the first was finalized last week): one on dads and sex ed at Mic and one on new Kink.com model rules for The Daily Dot.

But the list of what else I wanted to write, meant to write, could have written, started to write, thought about writing, etc., is far longer. Now, I'm not saying everyone should write a certain amount per day or week; that's not how I measure my writing. But I would guess that I'm not the only one whose output falls short of my goals not because of emergencies or actually "not having time," but because of something psychological. This is in no way a new issue for me; writer's block and I go so far back it almost feels "wrong" when words are bouncing off my fingers, whipping through my mind whether I'm walking or watching TV or peeing.

For me, it's usually about one of two things (or both of them, cause I'm an overachiever like that): fear and getting ahead of myself. My fear runs deep. This week, I have a few emails I need to send for work; some are asking people to check out my new book, some are requesting interviews for upcoming articles, some are pitching new pieces. Almost all of them, even the easiest of the easy ones, the ones to people I know and like, the ones where there's little risk of a bad outcome, have made me paralyzed with inaction this week. I've drafted those emails several times; I've written them on to do lists that literally litter my desk, but only sent one or two of them.

I've faced a great amount of impostor syndrome and fear of being thought of as a fraud, because while I've faced this writer's block, I've also been promoting my next LitReactor writing class, which in itself took me a having a leap of faith that I could do it the first time. Those voices that tell me you can't are loud, sometimes so much so that I have trouble hearing anything else.

writingteets

As I'm writing this right now, Thursday morning at 8:34 a.m., what I can tell you is that there is a sense of calm running through my veins, an antidote to all the fear I've clung to this week, all the reasons why I needed to do any other thing than write the next essay/article/email/word. Clearly, the rush I'm getting from working out my thoughts by writing them down is like oxygen for me, the equivalent of a deep breath of fresh air after being cooped up in a stuffy, uncomfortable room. It feels like getting myself back.

There will always be other things to occupy my time than writing, but I don't think there will ever be anything else that feeds me in the way writing does, that soothes me, that, as maddening as the process may be, gives me the thrill that writing does. Yet it's more than a "thrill," it's not just a rush or a high; it's more fundamental. Writing is an extension of me, so when I don't do it, when I willfully ignore it, or let the fear win, I feel lesser. When I lie in bed at night, as I did last night, aimlessly reading part of an article, random social media, a few pages of a book I had pre-ordered and was very eager to read but at midnight couldn't concentrate on, I felt hollow, sad, frustrated with myself because I hadn't written what I wanted to. I hadn't even let myself try to write.

In other words, the honest truth is that the only way to get over writer's block of any kind is to write something. Literally, anything. One word, one sentence, one step in the right direction that will help you out of the quicksand of inertia. If even that one word feels impossible, you could start typing up a beloved passage or page from a book, which I've used to get my fingers moving in familiar rhythms, but what I would recommend instead is to type a single sentence or paragraph by someone else, then use that to riff off of. I'll even give you a prompt: the epigraph to one of my favorite novels, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

concise

Anything can be a prompt: a word, an image, a song, a quote, a show, a sport, an object, a person, anything, really. Even if it has nothing to do with the thing you "must" write today. What I've found with my work is that the more pressure I put on myself to write, the more deeply afraid I become. I sometimes have to completely let any expectations go and simply write, which, for a control freak, is not easy. I like to know in advance which word should go where, leading me from one to the next to The End, but that is just not always possible. Sometimes the big picture gets so big it obscures everything in its path. No matter how good of a writer I become, I will never be able to write five essays or ten emails or three articles at once. I will only ever be able to write one word at a time. When I try to do more than that by, say, writing one thing but having my mind leapfrogging ahead to the next thing (and usually, it's many next things), I always come up with something subpar.

Here's the thing: anything we want to say requires a little bit of narcissism, and by "narcissism," I mean a belief in the value of what you're saying. My fear ultimately boils down to the notion that someone will reject my words, whether by clicking away, unsubscribing, ignoring my email, writing hate mail, officially rejecting a pitch or simply writing me off in their mind. When I let that fear rule me, I can't get past it; it's too loud, too strong, too compelling. I have to fight it off with every fiber of my being.

When I told my boyfriend how stuck I've been this week, he gave me all kinds of accolades, citing my accomplishments and bylines. I heard him, but in a faraway part of my mind, like we were playing telephone rather than standing next to each other in our kitchen. The thing is, when I'm in the depths of my blocks, my fear, none of my other writing matters. It's almost as if it doesn't exist, or rather, it exists, but seems like a relic from past me. Present me? She convinces herself she has no idea what she's doing.

Speaking of narcissism (which I have to keep spell checking!), here's the kind of healthy narcissism I'm talking about, from an artist you may have heard of:

dali

That DalĂ­ quote/image is from the book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna (you can read the basics of her perspective at Medium but I also recommend the book). In it, she writes:
Must is not a faraway land that you hope to arrive at sometime in the future, it's not for tomorrow or another day. Must is for today, now. And as you take daily action, the cliff will cease to be a cliff. It will simply become an obvious next step along your path to Must.
Now, writing is not a "Must" for everyone, but for me, it certainly is. It's both what pays my bills and what feeds my soul. It's how I make sense of my life, and when I don't do it, when the ideas pile up but I watch them drift by over and over again, the fear not only wins, it snowballs. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the fear has fuel. The fear can say: See? You should have written that essay and this email and you didn't, so don't even bother trying today/tomorrow/ever. It's too late. But it's never too late in the grand scheme of things. It may be too late in a specific case, but words are always valuable. They are always there for you. They are always accessible as long as you have a writing implement and a piece of paper.

As I'm typing this, I'm listening to the podcast Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer by Sonia Simone, and her guest, artist John T. Unger, just said, "Part of why I got into making art is that when I was less successful financially, I just loved art; I wanted to own art. I couldn't afford the kind of stuff I wanted, so I made my own versions of that. And the more that I made, the more it piled up and the more I got good at it...I was working in design until the big dot com crash, and at that point, I was like, you know, instead of learning to do something else sensible, I'm just going to do the art thing, because that's what I want to do, and I'll figure out a way to make it work." (FYI: transcribing people's thoughts on podcasts means you discover that seeing their words typed out is in no way equivalent to hearing them say it, so I recommend listening for the full impact.)

So no, I don't have a secret sauce for overcoming writer's block. I grapple with it far more than I would like. I wrote this for myself as much as anyone else. But I can tell you that especially when I've been stuck, when I haven't written and that inaction is weighing on me, it's downright euphoric when I do get the words out. Most of the time, they are not the words I would have expected to come out. They are not always ones that I'm madly in love with, but they are words, and they feel good, and they remind me that I am not the sum of my fears, but someone who has the willpower and strength and deep belief in my own worth to battle back against those fears.

Want weekly musings about writing? Sign up for my monthly newsletter and then drop me a line at rachelkb at gmail.com and put "Writing tips" in the subject line and I'll add you to my weekly writing newsletter, which is a subset of the main one. (Sorry that's so clunky; I will be streamlining the writing newsletter subscription process, but in the spirit of this post and the interest of not stalling any longer, which clearly I excel at, I wanted to share this now.) I'll be sharing weekly writing links, tips and musings, both about sex and erotica and broader topics related to various aspects of fiction and nonfiction.

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