Writer’s block and I have a too close relationship. In fact, we’ve had a co-dependent relationship since last spring. That’s when my literary agent told me he didn’t like the sample chapter I’d included in my most recent book proposal.
I knew the chapter was weak when I sent it to him, but I had hoped the book’s overall proposal—I believed its opening was powerful—and strong marketing plan would supersede the sample chapter. That was wishful, amateurish thinking on my part.
My agent suggested I solve the problem by incorporating my proposal’s opening into the first chapter. I know that would work, but if I move the proposal’s opening to the first chapter, how I will begin the proposal? He had a fix for that, too—write half the book and skip the proposal.
Oh, lordy, mercy.
It scares the heck out of me to think about doing what novelists must do—write the book first. Since I’ve been writing nonfiction books, I’ve always sold my books on proposal only.
Can we say I’ve gotten lazy? Spoiled? Then again, after writing a half dozen (or more) book proposals, I know that writing the proposal is harder—at least for me—than writing the book. So why don’t I just go ahead and write the book? The answer is because of the last thing my agent told me my proposal needed—humor. Again, I know he’s right. I know that laughter—amidst tears—is what’s going to make this book succeed.
So since I know what the problems are, why aren’t I writing? After all, I know the writing excuses:
- Family responsibilities and demands
- Day job responsibilities and demands
- Major holiday responsibilities and demands
- The need for a social life, as well as the responsibilities and demands of being supportive of friends during their trying times
- Illness of relatives, friends, and even self
- The need for exercise
- The need for some plain and simple fun
- The need to find inspiration
- The need to do book research
- The need to take that writing class, go to that seminar, go to that reading and book signing
- Volunteer work
- Grocery shopping and cooking
- Car repairs
- Picking a health plan
- Doing taxes
- Cleaning house
- Doing laundry
- Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, i.e. creating that platform that we’re always told we must have
The list and the excuses are infinite. I’ve used several of them to delay writing this essay. But since I know all the excuses—well, okay, at least 18 of them—I should be able to avoid them like I avoid potholes when I’m driving.
Of course, winter is coming, which means there’ll be cold and rain and the number of potholes will increase. And when there are more potholes in the road, it’s harder to swerve around them all—like the potholes of Christmas, cleaning up after Christmas, post-Christmas shopping, New Year’s, implementing that New Year’s resolution to exercise while coping with post-holiday exhaustion and trying to get back into a routine, college football playoffs, Super Bowl parties, and that writing class we’ve got to squeeze in since we promised ourselves we’d take at least one to kick start our writing.
I recall one such winter class. I was teaching it; we were discussing what keeps us from writing. I listened to excuse after excuse, most of which were reasonable—family responsibilities, day job, etc. Then … oh, then … one retired man told me he couldn’t find time to write because he had to play golf. At that, I snapped, “Then I guess you don’t really want to write, so just give it up and go play golf.”
The class gasped at my harshness.
But you know that old cliché what goes around comes around? Well, my sharp words to that senior citizen are boomeranging and smacking me right in my hard head. And they’re forcing me to ask myself if my excuses are really me telling me that I no longer want to write. I mean, aren’t excuses a form of writer’s block? Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of writer’s block?
Yet I can’t imagine not writing—no longer being a writer. Writer isn’t simply what I am. It’s who I am. If I’m not a writer, then who am I?
So I sit here and tick through my list of tips that can break one out of writer’s block:
- Establishing a ritual. When I was a struggling novelist living in Los Angeles, I always sat down and wrote when I heard a pianist playing a few floors above me. I thought if she could spend that much time on her art, then I could too. This time, though, that hasn’t worked for me. I sit down at my computer every day and the next thing I know four hours have passed and all I’ve done is Facebook and Twitter and paid some bills and walked in circles trying to get in my exercise.
- Lying on the couch and going to that meditative/day dream state between sleep and wakefulness. I used to know a man who worked on the original MacGyver TV series. He told me he came up with his best plot ideas while dozing on the couch. That used to work for me, too. Now days, when I try that, I find myself turning on CNN and getting twisted into full stress mode.
- Putting pen to paper and writing for ten minutes straight, about anything, without lifting pen off paper. And when I say anything I mean anything—how I’m stuck, how I can’t think of anything to write, how my hand is cramping because I’m using a pen, how I can’t read my own handwriting anymore, how I wish I were typing instead. That’s basically the Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones method, and it’s something novelist Wally Lamb says he does to break through his writing blocks. Me? In truth, that method has never worked for me because I want everything I write to be useful. And I find writing like that provides me with inane ramblings that go nowhere. But if it’s good enough for Wally Lamb …
- Watching a great movie or listening to great music. That’s one of the tips novelist Anne Rice gives writers. In particular, she says watching the film Amadeus inspires her. And, yes, watching a film can inspire me, but by the time I get home (I still like to watch movies in theatres), the inspiration has been totaled in a traffic jam. If I’m listening to music, I feel I should be doing something else at the same time—like paying bills, cleaning the house, reading the news or tweeting. So …
- Reading a great book. While reading great books is certainly inspiring, that also defeats me because I think I’ll never write that well. However, reading a rotten book sometimes inspires me because I think if that person can get published, surely I can too. But I’ve gotten where I no longer resort to that because I don’t want to waste my time reading rotten writing. I fear it taints the mind and encourages me to settle for less than great work.
- Taking a walk, a shower, gardening. I’ve heard novelist Jeff Abbott say some of his best ideas come when he’s in the shower or gardening. I know that when I’m frustrated with my writing, I walk out to my backyard and start pulling weeds. That generally accomplishes two things—my backyard looks a bit better and I break out in an allergic reaction to words. No! I mean I break out in an allergic reaction to weeds.
- Breaking out of my routine and going someplace else to write. That’s the one that generally works best for me. It’s what got me started on this essay, since lately I seem to have an allergic reaction to my office. I drove to my neighborhood Whataburger, where there isn’t any internet access to distract me, and I sat down with a pen and paper and jotted a few ideas, then a sentence, then a paragraph. I thought I was ready to get on a writing roll. Then I got into traffic, got home, got on my computer, and got distracted by Facebook and Twitter and bills and CNN and … this essay that should have been written in one day, is now a week in the making.
Years ago, a friend of mine who is a far more talented writer than I and who was a featured author at the Texas Book Festival, invited me to attend the festival’s authors breakfast with her. At that point, my friend was a single mom struggling to balance motherhood and writing. No, that’s an exaggeration. Due to the responsibilities and demands of motherhood, she had stopped writing.
But as we left that breakfast, we ran into Jane Smiley, my friend’s hero of authors and a writer who is also a mother. My friend asked Jane how she’d kept writing after she’d had children. Jane answered that you just do it.
My friend was furious. Maybe she wanted Jane to say I stopped writing and didn’t begin again until my kids were grown, i.e. an easy-out excuse to stop writing like I gave that man who wanted to play golf. Or maybe my friend wanted Jane to list 1-7 easy steps out of procrastination and writer’s block.
Either way, I know Jane was right. In fact, that’s Anne Rice’s final advice to writers who are blocked—write yourself out of it. And that’s really the only thing that works for me. Sure, when I do that there are rotten sentences and paragraphs. But as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, go ahead, write a shitty first draft. At least then you have some word clay to work with and mold into a powerful narrative, just like I have that powerful opening to my book proposal that I know will work great in the first chapter …
If I can only figure out how to shape it … pull it … trim it … twist it …
Oh, gee, I’m twisting myself into writer’s block again.
It’s that danged co-dependency issue.
According to the non-profit organization Mental Health America, co-dependency is “an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” In other words, my co-dependency on writer’s block is preventing me from having a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship with words and writing. (Yes, I’m going to believe my words and my writing have feelings and they’re happy when I put them together in an order that’s riveting, enlightening, coherent, and inspiring.)
Mental Health America further states that co-dependency “is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because people with co-dependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.”
Believe me, when I’m not writing, writer’s block is laughing at me and I’m feeling ridiculed, abused, depressed, alone, and like I’m a failure.
If I think back to when co-dependency was a trendy topic that everyone discussed seemingly every day (thank you, Oprah), I believe that co-dependency is about fear—fear of letting go of that abusive relationship, fear of being out “there” on one’s own, fear of being alone and lonely, fear of the unknown.
Isn’t that what writer’s block really is? Writer’s fear? Fear that the words will reject us. Fear that the agents and editors will reject us. Fear that the readers will reject us. Fear that our families and friends will reject us because of what we write. Fear of letting the world (and our families and friends) read our true thoughts and real emotions. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of being hurt. Fear that we’re really not good enough.
I think back to my last book where I expressed my fears and insecurities and weaknesses and joys and confusions and some readers loved that, while others hated it and have shamed me for it.
Do I really want to do that again? Put myself out there like that?
As I asked myself as I struggled with the ending of that book and wondered how much of myself to reveal—am I a writer or what?
I’m a writer.
I do what’s best for the book.
So I sit down and I face those fears, battle that writer’s block co-dependency, and I write. Day by day. Word by word. I move the opening of the proposal to my first chapter. Sentence by sentence. I remind myself that I’ve never written a funny first draft, only a self-pitying one. Paragraph by paragraph. The humor comes in the second draft. Page by page. I remind myself that if I write just one page a day, by the end of the year I’ll have a book. Chapter by chapter. And I forget about writer’s block because I have a new, healthy relationship. It’s with writing.
Suzy Spencer is an award-winning journalist and author of four nonfiction books — Wasted, a New York Times bestsellter and Violet Crown Award finalist; Wages of Sin, which was featured in the 2013 season of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Sins; Breaking Point, a Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and The Fortune Hunter, which was called “riveting” and “block-buster” by Globe magazine. In 2012, the Berkley Books division of Penguin published Suzy’s first memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Secret Sex Lives was named a Publishers Weekly Fall 2012 pick, a Barnes & Noble editor’s recommendation, and a Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Book Award finalist, among other accolades. Suzy holds a Master’s of Professional Writing in fiction and screenwriting and a Master’s of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.
AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Creative and narrative nonfiction, memoir, adult fiction including contemporary fiction, upmarket fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, and thrillers.
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