Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breaking through Writer's Block

As far as writer’s block goes, this one wasn’t so terrible. I was only paralyzed for a week or so. But it was just enough for all the old self-doubts to come crashing back. Why am I doing this? What’s the point of writing these books that no one is ever going to read? What if I can’t write after all? Blah blah blah.

But I’m here to say that I pushed past it. At least for today. The answer, big shocker, was to write. Now I know that sounds counter-intuitive. Writer’s block implies that you can’t write. Like your fingers are in little casts or something or your brain has frozen up and no words will materialize out of the ether. But I had to learn the lesson once again that it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, it was this paralyzing sense that I couldn’t write right. I was so caught up in trying to work out my story that I lost sight of the fact that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be put down on paper.

Writer’s Block is really about perfectionism. Julie Cameron says in The Artist’s Way: "Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things…Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop… It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.”

But how do you let go of the crippling feeling that what you’re writing is crap? Answer: write anyway. Quantity not quality. I don’t know who said that. Probably Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way. (If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, go buy it. It’s THE manual for creative people.)

So that’s what I did the past few days. I wrote. Just a bunch of blather. Questions I had about my book. Worries I had about plot holes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. Pages of boring backstory. I wrote over 3000 words and kept going. And somehow, miraculously, the process took over and I felt better. It didn’t matter anymore what I was writing, just that I was. In Bird by Bird (another must- have writer manual) Anne Lamott says that whenever she’s stuck she writes about school lunches. She doesn’t know why this helps. It’s simply the act of getting something down on paper. You start talking about the smelly tuna fish sandwiches you ate when you were in second grade or the lukewarm chicken noodle soup spilling out of your thermos and the next thing you know you’re off on some weird tangent that turns out to be the kernel of your next story. Try it. Really. It’s cool. If nothing else you might get new lunch ideas for you kids.

Okay. The second key to my breakthrough is another big shocker: reading. I read a great book, a truly amazing, impossible to put down YA novel that reminded me what the point of it all really is. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff won the Printz Award in 2004.

Don’t know how I missed this. It’s about a fifteen-year-old troubled girl who goes to live with her cousins in England. While she’s there war breaks out and the kids get separated from each other. The book becomes a kind of post-apocalyptic journey as they try to get back together. But this explanation doesn’t do it justice. The girl’s voice is funny and snarky and thoroughly original. There’s a fantasy element too—because the cousins can read minds and understand animals. And it’s a love story. Which seems weird, because we’re talking about two cousins, but somehow it works and you want so much for these kids to find each other again. I literally could not put it down, and I read the whole thing marveling at how brilliantly it was put together while at the same time being caught up in the story and just loving these characters. I finished the book and instead of feeling despair that I will NEVER be able to write this well, I was inspired to write anyway.

Imagine what an awesome thing it is to be able to capture a story and put it out into the world so that even one reader has a life changing experience or even just a couple hours escape into another world.

Hey. It’s enough to keep me going for another day.

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