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A Writer’s Struggles

writers-blockIt could happen to any of us. In fact, I’m certain it’s happened to a number of us. This year, it happened to me. I won’t say “writer’s block,” because that’s not quite right. It was a sense of disillusionment, I guess. A crisis of faith (that the stories wouldn’t come to me anymore). A frustration and tiredness that seemed to seep into my soul and sit there, filling me up so that no words could break through and get to the paper. Or so it seemed most days.

 

It started earlier this year, and I pushed through it for months to meet the deadlines I’d already set up. Then I took the summer off, hoping to “refill the well” or “rediscover my passion” or whatever you want to call it. When school resumed for my three kiddos, I was doing better, creatively speaking, but not up to my earlier level of productivity. And so the cycle of disappointment (in myself) continued. I missed feeling productive, valued, and valuable. The summer months I took off were spent watching movies and reading books, trying to study the craft of storytelling. That helped me feel as if I weren’t simply wasting time. Not having deadlines helped, too. But I still wasn’t recapturing the joy.

 

One “productive” writing-related thing I managed to do over the last couple months is read. For pleasure and for personal growth. Not to get too religious here, but I pulled on some advice that I’d heard in my catechism classes…when in doubt or feeling lost, flip to any random page in the Bible and read. You’ll find something to inspire you. I decided to apply that advice to my bookshelf full of books on the craft of writing.

 

The book I pulled most recently was one I haven’t read in about a decade. It was one of the earliest books I’d picked up on craft, and I can’t even remember where I originally heard or read the recommendation, but I’m glad I did. And I’m probably getting more out of re-reading the book now than I did before I had written a dozen manuscripts.

 

Bird by BirdThe book? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

 

The author’s sarcastic sense of humor and her advice for pumping out a messy first draft, polishing the second and third, etc., fit my personality as well as my style of writing. And as I read on, I felt like she was in my head. She knew what it was like to want to be a writer, but feel like you had no words. She spoke of writer’s block as an “emptiness” rather than something blocking the writer. I related to that. I felt used up and wrung out (mostly by other things going on in my life), and in desperate need of something to fill me back up.

 

The “bird by bird” reference came from something her parents told her brother when he procrastinated on a big report that he’d been given three months to complete, and now it was due the next day. He was, understandably, completely overwhelmed at the prospect of writing this report. It was supposed to be about birds, and so her parents told her brother to take it “bird by bird.” That’s the only way to accomplish anything or get anywhere. One step, one word at a time.

 

The book is over 20 years old, and some of the references are outdated (such as how research was done pre-Internet explosion), but the stories of writers struggling with words is timeless, and it’s important to me to remember that. Writers go through struggles with their craft, just as any other artist does. And this too shall pass.

 

I’ll send cyber hugs to the writers out there who are struggling, and gratitude to those who currently aren’t (because there is inspiration in seeing others do well!). In the meantime, I thought I’d share what I got from this book.

 

writingstuff1.) I don’t have to do it all right now. 

Lamott says when one is overwhelmed with the idea of writing, break it into “short assignments.” She keeps a 1-inch-square picture frame to remind her that “all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” She quotes E. L. Doctorow, who said “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Though I’m normally a plotter (or, at the very least, a “plantster”), I’ve had difficulty planning too far ahead this year, and these tidbits were extremely comforting to me. I just need to take things “bird by bird.” I went to Michael’s and found a 2×2 picture frame ornament and hung it at my writing desk to remind me to take things just a piece at a time. (Inside, I put a post-it that reminds me of the two things a story/scene needs to have: Emotion and Motion. And yes, that’s a Wonder Woman mug next to it—another source of inspiration. 🙂 )

 

2.) Remember that my first draft can suck.

Lamott calls it the “down draft,” as in “just get it down.” And the second draft is the “up draft,” where you fix it up. I think I let my perfectionist out of her cage too much, and need to remind myself that the sentences don’t come out perfect the first time. And they don’t have to. (BTW, Lamott has a chapter on “perfectionism” too, and it’s fabulous!)

 

3.) Remember the value in what I write.

I write romance. Lamott, as far as I know, does not. However, she states at one point (when talking about characters) that “there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die, what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.” Besides, as she notes, “you wouldn’t be a writer if reading hadn’t enriched your soul as much as other pursuits.” So books are important. What I write IS IMPORTANT. So I should keep doing it, right?

 

4.) “Plot grows out of character.”

So focus on the characters and let them tell the story their way. This takes the pressure off. I just have to be the conduit. I’m just the “designated typist” and the “holder of the lantern,” to use Lamott’s analogies.

 

5.) Listen to my broccoli.

Lamott references a Mel Brooks routine where a psychiatrist tells his patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Meaning, if I don’t know what a character should do, I need to try to be quiet and listen to him/her. Or to that voice inside me. Lately, things have seemed so crazy and, well, LOUD in my life. Getting to that quiet place where I can listen to my writer’s voice is important, and I’m working on that. I want to know what that broccoli has to say! It’s full of vitamins and good stuff. These vitamins build confidence. This has been a tough one for me, particularly in 2016. Lamott recommends trusting yourself. Being on your own side (“militantly”). Stopping the chatter of doubt leaves space for getting a writer’s intuition back. And man, I need to hear that. To have hope for that. Whether it be broccoli or some other metaphor, I need to find that part inside of me and listen to it.

 

6.) Use rituals to get into my story/writing.

Whether it’s making my coffee and checking email and then sitting at my desk or in a special place to write by a certain time, having a ritual can trick your brain into being ready to write. I lost my rituals recently when things in my life got kind of shaken up, and am working to reestablish them or create new ones. 

 

Blank notepad and pencil7.) Writer’s Block is normal.

“The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.”

Yes. This. A thousand times this.

Lamont speaks of hopelessness and feeling bleak, and it helped me immensely to understand I wasn’t alone in these feelings.

The part I underlined was this: “The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.” And she advises to get a page of “anything” written. Doesn’t matter what. On bad days or weeks, let it go at that. Don’t pressure yourself. And to think, what if I was dying tomorrow? What would I spend today doing? And then go do things that will fill me back up. “It helps to resign as the controller of your fate.” Everything we need to write a story is inside, and we have to wait until our consciousness is ready to hand it up to us. “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.”

 

8.) Find inner peace.

According to Lamott, this can’t be found in the world. The world can’t give it to us. It’s in our hearts, and sometimes we have to search to find it there. “But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”

 

There are so many other tips in this book, everything from jealousy to taking note of one’s surroundings to dealing with critics and being in critique groups to what it’s truly like to be published (a.k.a., it’s not the nirvana writers long for). I found a lot of comfort from Bird by Bird, and felt rejuvenated and focused after reading it (perfect timing for NaNo!). I highly recommend it to any writer.

If you’re interested in the book, here are a few places you can find it:

Amazon  |  iTunes  |  Kobo  |  Barnes and Noble

 

I’m going to go sit at my desk and listen to my broccoli. And continue to fill up the emptiness (which, thankfully, seems less empty every day). My next craft book re-visit is Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. I can’t wait to see what bits of wisdom I rediscover there. In the meantime, happy writing to you all!

 

What books seemed to have jumped off the shelves when you needed them most (hint: they don’t have to be nonfiction or even craft-related!)?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

annemariebeckerAnne Marie has always been fascinated by people—inside and out—which led to degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, and Counseling.  Her passion for understanding the human race is now satisfied by her roles as mother, wife, daughter, sister, and award-winning author of romantic suspense.  

She writes to reclaim her sanity.

Find ways to connect with Anne Marie at www.AnneMarieBecker.com. There, sign up for her newsletter to receive the latest information regarding books, appearances, and giveaways.

12 responses to “A Writer’s Struggles”

  1. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you. Great post! I have several craft books and instructions/lessons from online writing classes. A couple times a week I find it helpful to pick up one and read a section. Subject doesn’t matter. It gives me an energizing jolt. I have several books I reread or re-listen to. The story, the characters, the way that author, seemingly with ease, uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet I do spurs me on.

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    • I like the idea of just reading a section of a book you pull off the shelf. Sometimes, the idea of rereading an entire book can be daunting. And I’ve been rereading non-craft books, too, from my “favorites” shelf. That’s been very helpful, to revisit why I kept these books. 😉

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  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Anne Marie, I hear you on the disillusionment thing. It’s been challenging for me to get up and write every morning, knowing I won’t be publishing anything until rights revert on the first two books of my Underbelly Chronicles series. That’s my choice, but it can be SO depressing watching the rest of the publishing world continue on without you.

    I find the RITA contest time frame especially challenging. Once again this year, I have no book to enter – but next year looks promising!

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    • And from what I’m hearing, this year’s RITAs filled up so fast! But you’ll definitely be ready when the time is right. That’s what I keep telling myself, but you’re right…it’s hard to see the rest of the world seemingly pass us by.

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  3. June Love says:

    Anne Marie, these are some helpful suggestions. I haven’t read Bird by Bird, but another friend mentioned it a few weeks ago. I don’t know how I missed that one, but I want to read it.

    I read through some old RWA workshop notes I’d taken some years ago and was stunned at how much I’d forgotten along the way. So, I’ve more or less gone through a re-learning of basic craft, which is sad because it only shows how little I’ve written the past few years.

    It’s difficult getting back on track. I’ve been there. I lived with the mentality of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” for several years and that will throw all sorts of writing barriers in your way.

    I’m glad you’re taking steps to fill that void. It’s not easy.
    Thank you for the suggestions and for letting those of us who struggle in similar ways know that it isn’t just us.

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    • June, thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience. I’m glad you mentioned revisiting old workshops! Great idea. My goal this month is to re-organize my writing stuff and gather my notes in an orderly way. It always helps to revisit that stuff – and to see how far we’ve come, too!

      It IS difficult to get back on track, but I’m trying to think of it as developing a habit. It can take a few weeks to do that, but then it feels natural.

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  4. Susie Haught says:

    Hi, Anne Marie–
    You know my story, and as I read your post I couldn’t help but go back to those three months and how I too, had to rediscover the joy of writing. Those three months were miserable (just ask hubby) and it wasn’t until I let everything go and focused on the joy that I was able to remember why I do this.

    I had to take a step away for awhile to block out the writing world and allow those doubts to simmer and to finally fizzle. I’m back at it, slow but sure, but this time I’ll do it my way–like a reformed addict, I have to take it one day at a time or I’ll go completely insane.

    Thank you for sharing your struggles and putting yourself out there. I know it wasn’t easy, but sometimes airing our doubts and fears helps.

    I wish you the very best. Always.

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    • Hi, Susie! Thanks for commiserating. 🙂

      It IS all about the joy, isn’t it? That’s why I struggled this year. I wasn’t writing for the money, and I’d lost the joy, so why was I doing it at all? Especially when so many other things in my life were clamoring for my attention.

      I’ve been working through that, and gradually getting back the joy by reading and “dabbling” with this story or that. Letting myself get to know characters until one of them speaks to me. Basically, playing with words again. 🙂

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  5. Some great advice here. I, too, struggle with doubt … and spend more of my time thinking about selling/marketing than actually writing.

    I need to rediscover the joy of writing, as well. I think many of us do.

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  6. Anne, This is a wonderful post. Disillusioned is the perfect term for how I feel at times. It’s that whole eating an elephant at one sitting thing that gets me everytime.

    I love the idea of the 2″inch picture frame with a daily goal in mind. Love it! I haven’t read this book, but I’m going to hop over to big A and invest in it. Everything you’ve shared has had meaning. I’m sure I will find more to help me with my dark highway.

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    • I loved that dark highway analogy, too. I know there’s more out there, more that I can’t see in the dark, but I have to trust that my journey will take me where I need to go and show me what I need to see along the way.

      This month, I’ve been tinkering with a new story in a new series, and had hit a wall after a couple chapters, but I remembered my picture frame, just started writing some notes, which became some bits of dialogue, and before I knew it, I had a fully-developed scene with a couple secondary characters that sparked new ideas for more books in the series. That was a welcome breakthrough! Looking forward to discovering what shows up in my headlights today…. 😉

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