My last email from Edinburgh blogger Elaine from Dreams and Whispers covers the tricky subject of the creative block…
My last question is about creative writing in general, and blocks that can hinder creativity -for example perfectionism, comparing your work to others, an internal critical voice, etc. Personally I got stuck when I attempted Nanowrimo last year: I’d think “Ugh, that last sentence was horrible, I can’t possibly leave that in. I’ll just go over that for a second…”, then suddenly a whole paragraph would be edited and the word count would actually reduce! So my question for a prolific writer like yourself is: do you ever get stuck with “writer’s block” and if so, what helps you move past it?
I think everyone gets creatively blocked from time to time. I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts and tweets I’ve read that claim sitting in front of an empty page or screen is the hardest part of the writing process. But to be honest, I don’t find it to be as much of a problem as I used to. I found it incredibly hard to write fiction when I was at uni and only finished a few things. For those four years I blogged (although not as regularly as now) and did journalism (mainly singles reviews and occasional comment pieces) and spoof news stories for the uni satirical paper… but I rarely finished any stories.
After graduating in 2008 I continued that trend for a bit. By that point I had sort of decided that my fiction style was a bit too flippant or glib for anyone to really care about, but I continued with blogging and started to write news stories and stuff for hyperlocal websites. So yeah, I have been known to go ‘no, I can’t do it, and even if I did have an idea I wouldn’t do it justice..’
So I merrily continued with short articles and blog posts till November 2009, my first go at NaNoWriMo. What I liked about NaNo was that they recognise this tendency people have to lose confidence in what they’re doing, like me, or as you mentioned in your email, to start but then sit and get stuck, re-reading and editing and worrying about it all and never getting anything done and eventually giving up and moving on to something else. As you know, that is why they set the 50k in 30 days challenge – the idea being that you do not physically have time to stop and go back over stuff because you have to get at least 1,667 words written every day as well as going about your daily business. In order to get there you need to accept that a certain amount of stuff will in all likelihood not be very good, and do it anyway – you can go back and fix it later.
Although I didn’t finish in 2009 because work was insane, I got about 15k done and I think I was cured of the notion I’d developed that fiction wasn’t for me. I also had a strong sense that I probably would have finished if a couple of specific and relatively unusual incidents at work hadn’t got in the way. Which is good, because the whole time I was growing up “author” was one of my top career choices, refined to “children’s author” when I went to high school. Then when I reached the age of 15 and realised “author” was unlikely to be my first job, I decided to go for “journalist” and then segue once I had ten years or so of writing for a living under my belt.
NaNo 2010 cured me completely I think. I guess I’d been resolving to do it for a year, mulling over these ideas of not editing and just writing anything that comes to mind, so by the time it came around it didn’t even occur to me to read back over what I’d done already! I do genuinely think of editing as a totally separate entity to the initial writing process now, and with 12 books I quite often don’t read back over anything at all. In fact there are only two scenarios when I read things over again: when I haven’t written for a day or two and can’t quite remember where I left off, or when I’m putting an excerpt on the blog – because I do read back over blog posts and edit them a bit before putting them up.
It also reminded me not to take myself too seriously. There is no freaking way that the first draft of any novel is going to be the next Moby Dick, War and Peace, or whatever, regardless of how much you’ve planned and researched. There’s no point in panicking because it isn’t perfect, because if you’re going to give up after the first draft you probably aren’t that passionate about it. Crafting something literary takes time and effort – writing is a job and you have to work at it. And anyway, those aren’t the sorts of things I want to write – you remember I said I convinced myself nobody would want to read my stories because they tend towards the silly or glib – but then I thought actually, I’d read them. I like books that make me laugh, and I can’t be the only one. Otherwise Terry Pratchett would be out of a job.
12 books has continued the good work of NaNo in helping with creative blocks. It means I have to force myself to write, to the extent that it feels odd if I haven’t done anything that day, and when I get into the way of it I can get a lot done in one sitting – my WPM has definitely got quicker over the past few months! And because I’m doing one a month, plus a lot of other short articles at the same time for other blogs and websites on different topics, I never have the chance to get bored with any of them. I still get frustrated, but that’s often as much because I know exactly how I would fix things if I had the time to do a bit more research or whatever.
Trying to publicise it has also forced me to talk about what I’m doing, which can help a lot when you’re stuck. I used to be very anxious about sharing anything before it was finished – I couldn’t even sit next to my boyfriend writing out a blog post on my laptop because I felt like it was raw and unfinished and if he happened to read any over my shoulder he would be thinking ‘well that isn’t very good’. He wouldn’t, of course, but I was paranoid anyway. But with 12 books I have to talk about it so that people will give me suggestions, and I’ve done a couple of interviews with local news sources about it too, which has helped me lose that fear of somehow failing or people thinking badly of me. And also, talking about a story and the problems you’re having with it out loud quite often gives you ideas of how to fix it yourself, even before other folk jump in with their suggestions.
The other thing that helps creative blocking is reading lots. I know it can make you despair at times because you feel there’s no way you’ll ever be as good as whichever author has captured your imagination on any given day, but it can also help you decide who to emulate and who to avoid, it gives you ideas about how you would approach something, and it all feeds in to the imagination lobe of your brain (I don’t think it’s called that but there must be a bit that deals with that type of stuff) and stews in there and recycles itself into new ideas and a better writing style. It can also make you insanely jealous that someone else has created something so awesome, which can be quite motivational :p
The main thing I would say though is to never ever beat yourself up about not having written anything. If I was doing that this project would have been over before it began. Feeling a bit blocked is fine and normal, and it’s OK to give yourself a few days off. The thing about writing is that even when you aren’t physically doing it, ideas are probably floating around in the back of your mind, whether you’re conscious of them or not. It’s alright to not get anything down for a while. But, if you suspect that it’s less a case of not having anything to write and more about being lazy, then just sit down and start. Start in the middle, or at the end, or with a generic ‘Once upon a time’, and write whatever the hell comes into your head, for at least ten minutes. Chances are you’ll get into it and keep going for longer than that. Don’t worry that you have nothing to say – everyone has something. Something they like or hate, or that they think everyone else should know about; a terrible secret of their own or someone else’s; a funny anecdote; a hope or aspiration. And if it turns out when you’ve written a few hundred words that actually that isn’t what you wanted to say, that’s OK. It’s a first draft and it’s up to you whether anyone ever gets to see it. Just don’t delete it till you’ve gotten the thing you actually meant to say out there on the page. And backed up.