Posts Tagged 'Writer’s Block'

Eating an Elephant

eat an elephant

I’m sure most of you know the old adage, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. ” Well, my next step in my writing rehab program, as outlined in my Overcoming Writing Blocks book, was just that.

Having dealt with the distractions in my environment, I moved on last week to the writing project itself.  First up was to break the task into “bite-sized units.”  For a novel,  that would be chapters or possibly “Parts,” though so far I have not been thinking of this book in  terms of “Parts.” For now I took the average of the number of chapters in each of my six books — 42 — as the number of chapters in Sky.

I’ve already written six of them, which  leaves 36. At a rate of 2 chapters per 3 weeks,  with time out here and there for holidays and trips, I would be done with a first draft around May 1 of next year.

Whether that has any tie to reality or not, I have no idea. But it’s a start.

Next was to come up with a “Purpose Statement.” For fiction writing that would be one’s main story question for the tale. In working through developing this,  many things came to light about the world I’m building and this plus the next step “research reading and taking notes” (which I take to also include work in developing the parameters of one’s make-believe world) sent me off for most of last week gathering all my scattered notes and ideas into folders with the intention of going through the collected material and deciding what I want to keep and what I want to toss.

In the process of all this I realized that I am no longer interested in the linear set-up of a single empire beneath my fictional planet’s surface with the heavenly city floating above as I had originally envisioned. There have to be various nations to carry out what I’m wanting to do,  and in fact in the chapters I’ve already written there are already at least two other national entities mentioned. So I see that this concept was there all along, despite my initial plans.

I’ve been taking all my note cards and entering the notes on them into one of my many world building documents, or if I’ve decided not to use that material, simply throwing it away. It’s been very productive work. Not when it comes to chapters written, but as regards the fundamental shift the story is now taking. Once an optimum number of the world building questions have been answered, I’ll be able to turn my attention to the plot…

The fact that I’m making this fairly major change, in addition to much new material I’ve gathered from miscellaneous reading, news events and my own increasing understanding of some of the spiritual issues I was wanting to deal with, I’m beginning to see there might have been a reason for my stall over the last few months… years? … that goes beyond mere burn out, life distractions, or lack of self-discipline…

Managing Your Environment

According to the book Overcoming Writing Blocks, the first area  for a blocked writer to deal with is managing her environment.

Creative concentration has the power to make your senses especially acute and abnormally sensitive to the slightest stimuli. When you’re concentrating successfully, this heightened attention enhances your thoughts and the words flow onto the page smoothly and powerfully. When you’re blocked, however, your attention perversely gravitates toward the slightest distraction in your environment…

…You feel victimized by your inattentiveness, because you find yourself guiltily inviting interruptions, knowing that they give you a welcome break from the frustration of being stuck.

I can attest to the truth of this observation!

Distracting elements of your writing environment can play right into the guilty inviting of interruptions. The OWB authors recommend, therefore, that you do as much as you can to eliminate them.

So, the first thing I did was to get rid of the distracting clutter, not just in my office but in the entire house.

For example, I keep my stamping supplies on a waist-high shelf in the bedroom, which I have to walk by every time I want to get something from the bedroom desk (for me, it’s pens mostly, but also sometimes my journal, or even something I left there earlier when I was eating breakfast — like a timer.) Walking past that shelf of supplies would far too often draw my eye to a card in progress or entice me to stop and flip through my  “for later” files…  the next thing  I knew, I’d be doing something with a card, when I was supposed to be writing.

So, operating on the premise of out of sight, out of mind,  I got a piece of fabric and covered the entire contents of the shelf. It’s done wonders.

I used the same principle with the guest bed in the office, which had all sorts of projects and things I planned to fix or get rid of, and piles of notes and articles to go through for potential blog posts, research tidbits, or stuff for future reference.  I put the projects and fix-it things into the closet, put the piles of papers into a folder unread, and shoved it into my file cabinet, tossed the catalogues and took the bags of cast-offs to Goodwill.  At last the bed was clear!

I recently got a new serger. This sat in its box by the wall near my desk, reminding me daily that I needed to get it out and use it, even as another voice warned it would take too long, I didn’t have time, it’s a new thing and I don’t know how to use it and you know how THAT always turns out…  Well I don’t need the guilt and mental arguments, so I covered it with another piece of fabric, and now I no longer even look at it.

Then I set to work clearing off my desk area, filing papers, throwing others away, and piling my scattering of notecards into their proper categories.

I’m trying to develop the habit of putting things away rather than leaving them out to “remind me” to do them later. Because sure as anything they’ll remind me in the middle of when I get to work on Sky.

Finally, I figured out how to silence the ringers on the phones, and have taken to turning them off for several hours in the morning, along with the volume on the answering machine. It can still take calls and record messages but I no longer have to listen to the entire sequence right in the middle of my writing time. I’m even covering the machine with a folded towel so I can’t see if there’s a message or not til it’s removed at the end of my writing stint. (Plus having the towel on it reminds me to turn it back up when I’m done.)

With that I’d pretty much taken care of many of the distractions that present themselves in my periphery. Only one remained, but it was the most insidious: the Internet.

Stay tuned for part 3…

The Winds Have Changed

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted regularly. In fact, except for last Friday’s post, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted at all. So much for all that Platform stuff from last summer about posting regularly and often…

I don’t know what happened. My desire to write just dribbled away… Other things claimed my time and attention. When I considered the book, the blog, even email, I was blank and utterly without motivation. First time in my life that I’ve felt like that.

Or so I thought.

Of course I’ve prayed about it. Repeatedly. What is wrong with me, Lord? Has the fire gone out? Am I not getting enough sleep, or just being undisciplined? Should I relax and trust You to move me when it’s time? Or is there something more I can do?

It’s been a very strange two and half months. No, it’s been longer than that, especially when I take my progress on Sky into account… which, until last week, was not much progress at all.

So, for a time now, I’ve been reading stuff — books, blogs, news — and making cards, and cleaning the house and working on long-put-off projects and dealing with Stuff… can’t clearly remember all of it. Church stuff, taxes, ailing relatives, shingles, stuff going wrong, breaking, getting lost… a leak in the water line from the main to the house…  not getting enough sleep, drinking too much caffeine (which means any caffeine at all), beset by the terrible distractibility I’ve written about in previous posts…

But then, at the beginning of May something happened.  I’d just finished and sent off the guest post I wrote for Seriously Write and “for some reason” says my journal entry, “I picked up Overcoming Writing Blocks.”

blocks

It’s on the shelf above my desk. I’ve had it for 30 years. I’ve read it and reread it and read it again. I’ve underlined passage after passage, starred portions in the margins… even blogged about here  and several other places…  In the past few months, while wondering if I was blocked I’d look at it on its shelf and think it would be no help. After all, I’d read it. Repeatedly. I already knew everything that was in it…

But on the first of May, for some reason I picked it up again, and was… SIGH… again “amazed to find,” in the section on Preparing to Write,  not only a description of what I’ve been enduring, but also some new and slightly different insights I’d not considered before.

One of the new and slightly different insights was this:

This is the training and gestation stage of any writing task. You know what you have to do and you must prepare yourself properly for it…you need to develop basic fitness habits that will get you in shape for prose composition.”

That’s true, I thought. If you just go out and try to start a daily running regimen, it’s not going to work. You have to work up to it, you develop some basic habits…

The precise description of what I’ve been going through recently, is exactly what I’ve gone through in the past, repeatedly, and you’d think that I’d remember that but for some reason… this time it all seemed New and Different and Far Harder and More Hopeless than ever before.

I believe the Bible when it says we have sick heads and deceitful hearts… How can I be so thick-headed?

Well, here’s the recap of the description of blocking at the preparing to write stage:

  • restless, anxious procrastination
  • can think of 1000 things you’d rather do
  • when you finally force yourself to sit down — dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up
  • when finally do get yourself to concentrate, all you get is dull blankness. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the project. It leaves a flat, sour taste in your mouth.

YES! YES! YES! That is exactly how I felt! EXACTLY!

I thought this was all new. That I’d never experienced it before. At least “not like this”. Ha!  It was a great comfort to know it was not new, that I had experienced it and though I thought I already knew what was in this book and all the advice it had to give, maybe I should give it another look…

At least the Preparing to Write section, anyway. First up was”Managing your Environment.”  But I’ll save that for tomorrow.

Charge of the Mosquitos

Alaskan Mosquitos Shirt

“Enjoy Alaska! 40 million mosquitos can’t be wrong!”

This illustration is from the sketchbook I made when we visited Alaska back in 1995. One, as the hand-written caption says, that I’d seen on a t-shirt someone was wearing.

The mosquitos were indeed horrendous, biting wherever I had neglected to put Off: in my ear, in the part of my hair, on my eyebrow… They would hover in a cloud outside the car when we stopped, waiting eagerly for us to open the door while inside we were busily spraying ourselves with another round of  Off. They even swarmed in the midst of a rainstorm.

And that’s all nothing compared to the stories of those who venture into the really wild parts, full of lakes and rivers.  Yes, by itself the mosquito is a small thing, and its bite, while annoying, is hardly life threatening. But thousands of them? In a July 2000 article in the Lifestyles section of the Anchorage Daily news described living with mosquitos thus:

Greg Balogh, an endangered-species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, said dealing with them on the job is ”truly a mental game.” He said he has seen crew members bug out from the constant buzzing.

That explains why people who work outdoors become methodical — almost fanatical — in dealing with bugs. Some douse themselves with super-concentrated DEET; others pile on layers of protective clothing; still others invest in a mosquito head net.

It was under Colonel R.B. Thieme’s teaching that I first heard about the charge of the elephant vs the charge of the mosquito — the Colonel’s colorful metaphors for the two different categories of trials and tribulations that we face as Christians.

The charge of the elephant represents the outright disasters like seeing one’s house burn down or one’s marriage fall apart or receiving a diagnosis of cancer, whereas the mosquitos represent the little things. The little annoyances that shouldn’t get to us, but do.

And the more there are of them, the more difficult they become. I find them generally more challenging than the elephants, primarily because with the elephant I know there is nothing I can do but ride it out. I have no control over the situation and thus no choice but to leave it to God.

But the mosquitos!  Ah, now those, I think I can control. After all, I only need a fly swatter, right?

The thing about the “mosquito” problems, though, is that mostly I don’t recognize them for what they are. They seem to buzz about my head, but too seldom do I stop and take a step back to actually look at them.

Unless, as with the insect version, there are too many of them and you can’t get away from them.  Like one day last week…

I was trying to get back to my routine of writing, as mentioned in previous posts, motivated by the information gleaned from the talk John Cleese gave on Creativity. I’d set a goal of just getting into the office for an hour and a half of pondering each day, and wasn’t doing too badly. A couple of days I even managed about 4 hours of work…

But then my right elbow began to hurt and twinge. I first noticed it while I was walking Quigley (or more accurately “hauling” him off a captivating smell), but then it started intruding when I was writing. Then, in addition to that and the already intermittent throbbing of my foot from the plantar fasciitis I’d recently developed (from wearing worn-out walking shoes), my wrist joined the party, the old carpal tunnel issues resurfacing enough I had to stop in the middle of writing my morning pages (part of my attempt to get myself working every day). Thinking to give myself a break and come back to it, I went  into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher and in the process stuck my right thumb into the point of a knife when I reached down to pick up the utensil basket. Puncture wound under and alongside my right thumb — where it hurt to hold a pen. It throbbed all day.

And if all that wasn’t enough, my eyes were also giving me increasing trouble, as mentioned in an earlier post — the beginning of the shingles relapse though at the time I thought it was dry eyes (well, our dew point was something like 13 and our hmidity 24%)… Of course it’s always been dry here, especially in the winter and I’d never had a problem before. I figured I was just reacting more, maybe from age, or maybe from the previous shingles problem…

So writing was out for that day and several more and finally I just gave up.

Pastor Farley had mentioned something about there being times when God will temporarily shut down the operation of one’s gift for “training purposes.”  I wondered if that was what was going on.

Never before this book have I ever felt the need to discipline myself so badly.  Writing was something I had to do. It was like that burning Jeremiah speaks of that forces you to speak. I was driven to write. The other things were the intrusions, the things I shuffled aside, and let go…

Now it’s the other way around. So, yes, once again, the pendulum has swung back, and I’m thinking maybe God really has shut me down in this area for a bit. And if so perhaps I should just turn my efforts to the far too long list of things to fix and mend and take care of around the house. And read some fiction as well (I mentioned this in an earlier post)  I’m almost done with Executive Orders, in fact, (since the eye problem interfered with that a bit) and still really enjoying it. But that’s a post for another day.

Get the Writing in First

Well, the post I mentioned last time is not cooperating. It seemed to make sense when I first wrote in (in my journal) but when I drafted it into an “add new post” window, I suddenly saw all the words and phrases that wanted “explaining” in what I’d written. And to try to explain would take the piece way off from the central theme.

Which is why I still haven’t posted it. There’ve been other things as well. Yesterday I thought I was going to have pretty much all day to write and ponder. Just thinking that is practically a curse, because I tend to let myself do all sorts of other things before I “get to work” and suddenly the day is gone and I never did get to the work. Or, and actually this is most common, other things come in to take up the time I thought I’d have to write.

So I’ve decided that I am going to get the writing done first — at least a stint of it — and then do the other things. Yes, that was implied in the post about fighting the tendency to do the “trivial but urgent” things, instead of the important but unknown things. But I am a slow learner.

A very slow learner, I’m sorry to say.

But I did do the writing today. So Yay for that!  I haven’t decided if I should do it first thing when I wake up, or go through the basic morning routine and then do it. Right now I’ve chosen the latter because it’s closest to the status quo and worked fairly well, once upon a time in my past. The problem is, my self-discipline weakens as the day goes on, so if I do the writing first, there’s a question whether I’ll get the morning routine done. And vice versa. Right now I think the routine is most important because otherwise things are going to pile up, make me feel guilty, get lost, broken or suddenly become “fires that must be put out” at the worst possible time, when it’s easier just to do them in the routine.

The other problem… or reason I’ve not been able to post anything is because I’ve been reading. A novel. A 1358 page novel. This is a result of an article I found when I googled “Major Writer’s Block, which advised me to take a break and read two or three classics. Then … I forget. Because hey, what died in the wool reader wouldn’t want to drop everything and take such advice.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years and seemed to call out to me so I started it… last weekend I think (I can’t rightly recall). I’m on page 450.  I am REALLY enjoying it. I don’t think I’ve read a novel since last summer.

What novel? Okay, I’m a Tom Clancy fan. I’ve read all the Jack Ryan books up to Executive Orders, which is the one that was on my shelf and which I’m reading. When I first picked it up, I was blown away.  It picks up where Debt of Honor leaves off, with Ryan having just been sworn in as interim Vice President of the United States. I remembered that part. What I didn’t remember was that half an hour after he was sworn in a jetliner crashed into the Capitol Building during a joint session of Congress killing all the Senators and Representatives present, all 9 justices of the Supreme Court, the president, and all but two members of the president’s cabinet. I read that one in October 2003 so surely the similarities registered then, but I don’t recall it. I think I assumed, unthinking, that he’d taken his idea from the reality, rather than coming up with it prior to.

This time, though,  I checked what year Executive Orders was published: 1996. Clancy was writing about the very thing that more or less happened five years later — and was, in fact, intended to happen but for the American passengers who stopped the hijacked Pennsylvania flight — on Sept 11, 2001. One of the Amazon reviewers claimed to have started reading this book on Sept 10, 2001, the day before the event and found it quite unnerving.

Anyway, after that Jack gets to rebuild the government and I am really enjoying that because he’s not a politician and he’s not interested in assembling a bunch of other politicians and so is choosing people who know how the real world works and have been successful in it. So much more enjoyable that watching or reading today’s news!  Not to say I haven’t been, but EO is kind of a nice fantasy-land antidote.

So that’s what I’ve been doing and why I haven’t managed to properly put together the essay I thought I was going to post…  Plus, as I said I’m officially on p 450 (not to say I haven’t indulged my habit of skipping ahead to follow particular plotlines) so there’s lots, still, to read!

Quote: Recover and Recharge

I can only give thanks to our God that He has allowed me to have a case of shingles almost “in name only.” Its physical impacts have been so minimal, that except for the fact that two doctors have made confident diagnoses that I do in fact have it, I would feel embarrassed to even claim I did. The medications have worked flawlessly so far, their side effects also minimal.

The rash is nearly gone, and my eye looks and mostly feels back to normal, except for occasional zings of nerve pain in the left corner now and then.

But in spite of all that, things have conspired to keep me from the blog and the book. More on that in another post. For now, it’s late, so I’m doing another reprise from my old blog, this quote relevant to my current creative situation:

“Creativity comes in cycles. One month you’re churning out piece after piece, everything you put your hand to comes out fabulous. It seems like it’ll go on forever. You are the Productivity Queen! Next month you crash and burn. You can’t even bear to look at your studio, let alone make something. This is when you need to recognize the signs your body is sending. After a time of great creative work, your brain, spirit and body need a break. You’ve spent your creative energies and your well is dry. It’s time to recharge.”      ~ from Alexia Petrakos’s “How to Recover and Recharge from Creative Burnouton Collective Creatives – a cooperative artisan blog

Quote: Can’t Look You in the Voice

It’s sometimes comforting to know that other writers, famous ones, wildly successful ones go through the same trials the less famous and less successful do.

Here’s a picture of a telegram sent by American writer Dorothy Parker to her publisher while in the midst of writer’s… block/angst/despond…

In case this comes up too small to read, here’s a transcription:

WESTERN UNION

1945 JUN 28 PM 4 37

NBQ209 78=NUJ NEWYORK NY 28 422P
PASCAL COVICI.VIKING PRESS=
18 EAST 48 ST=

THIS IS INSTEAD OF TELEPHONING BECAUSE I CANT LOOK YOU IN THE VOICE. I SIMPLY CANNOT GET THAT THING DONE YET NEVER HAVE DONE SUCH HARD NIGHT AND DAY WORK NEVER HAVE SO WANTED ANYTHING TO BE GOOD AND ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS. CAN ONLY KEEP AT IT AND HOPE TO HEAVEN TO GET IT DONE. DONT KNOW WHY IT IS SO TERRIBLY DIFFICULT OR I SO TERRIBLY INCOMPETANT=

DOROTHY.

—————-

I love “can’t look you in the voice.”  And, “all I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words.” I can relate to that.

On that subject (that is, piles of papers with wrong words), I worked on Sky yesterday and today, and am slowly moving through ch 3.  I have LOTS of papers with the wrong words on them. My consolation is that I also have a few papers with mostly the right words on them, and also, that all the work I’ve done on worldbuilding here, will pay off later. And it is coming together if roughly.

Telegram image courtesy of Nancy Campbell’s blog

Back to Overcoming Writing Blocks

  Over four years ago, on my old blog on Blogger (Writing from the Edge), back when I was starting into The Enclave, I put up a series of posts taken from the material in the book, Overcoming Writing Blocks by Karin Mack and Eric Skjei. I’ve owned it for over 30 years and it is thoroughly marked up, passages underlined, highlighted, circled, starred… It’s no longer in print, and when I went to look on Amazon — where it’s available used for about $6 —  I found it had only one sorry review by someone who obviously did not need the book as much as I do.

I say do, because yesterday I was moved to pluck it off my shelf again and look through it. I’d say this one book has served me more than all the rest of the writing books I have combined. It reminded me of so many things I thought I already knew. Well, yeah, I did know, but as with the word of God, I wasn’t using the things that I knew. (Which is why repetition is so important!)

And today, as I went looking for those old posts mentioned above, I found one that I literally could have written yesterday, just change the names of the books involved. Sky is the “other novel” mentioned below that I began to develop after Steve rejected Black Box (now known as The Enclave) in its infancy.

Thus, I thought it might be interesting to repost it here:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Getting Started Again

Yesterday I started out with high hopes for getting in some good work on Black Box. I had my morning chores done quickly, I didn’t have to go anywhere, I knew that I would have the whole day to devote to working on this book and I intended to use it to full advantage. After all the interruptions and delays and so forth that I’d encountered since my official beginning of the book, now, finally I was set to go.

Or so I thought. I started developing this book years ago, after I’d written Arena but before it sold — during the year and a half that Steve Laube held it, waiting for the right moment to approach the editorial board. He’d said in a seminar at Mt. Hermon that if what you want to write is “C,” but the market is at “A,” you should write “B,” that is, something that incorporates elements of the marketable A, but also the passion of your C.

So, operating on the premise that Arena might not sell, I wanted to develop a book that might be more palatable and yet also be a bridge to Arena. So I came up with Black Box — an alternate world story set in our own world, but still almost as strange as Arena. I think I worked about 10 months on it before Arena sold. After the sale, Steve wanted to know what I was working on for a follow up but when I ran a brief summary of Box by him he nixxed it in about five minutes (literally).

I figured the Lord wanted me to go in another direction so I dropped it and started developing another novel. After that I went back to Eidon and then the Legends of the Guardian-King series. A year ago January (2006) I knew I had to present something new to Bethany House and took up Box again. But this time I had no time to spare, because every day devoted to that was another day away from Return of the Guardian King. I had to take the notes I had and come up with a story synopsis that made sense and was interesting and that’s what I did. I also, at what I believe was the Lord’s nudging, added a new and unexpected element to the story.

It sold, amazingly, but I was deep into RotGK by then and didn’t give it a thought until well… this last month. March 1 I began ferreting out all my old files and notes from their various hiding places, collected them into my office and was completely overwhelmed. I have tentative plot lines, lists of possible events, index cards of notes on background issues, setting details, details of character, more possible events, research snippets, incidents or scenes, writings about where I’m going with the story, what kinds of things I might want to do… stacks and piles and folders.

Plus I have about 8 1/2 chapters written, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. And over the course of this very distracted month, every time I came in to wrestle with the alligator, I found myself wanting to read email, or staring out the window, or …

Well, here’s a quote from Overcoming Writing Blocks that describes it quite well:

“The paramount symptom of blocking at this first stage is restless, anxious procrastination. You can think of a thousand things you’d rather be doing than sitting at your desk pushing your pen, and when you do finally force yourself to sit down, dozens of extraneous but apparently urgent thoughts bubble up, as your recalcitrant mind ingeniously struggles to distract itself from the task at hand. Then, when you do finally manage to focus your attention on the job, all you get is a dull blankness, or nothing but the most obvious banal truisms. There’s no excitement, no inspiration about the whole project; it leaves a flat sour taste in your mouth.”

 I had forgotten about this. It is right on. Yesterday, when I had all those hours to really get working on the book, sometime in mid-afternoon I picked up the Robin Hobb book I’d started a couple of weeks ago (Fool’s Errand — it was lying enticingly on the dining room table) just to finish the chapter I was in the middle of… and read almost straight through until midnight (minus time to make dinner and watch 24).

Arg. Not at all part of my plan. When I woke up this morning, I refused to let myself go on the usual guilt trip, realizing instead that this was a familiar pattern. That it wasn’t just lack of self-discipline, but that something else was going on. The work I had before me was hard, and the strategies I was using to tackle it were not working. I needed more. And so… back to Overcoming Writing Blocks. Check back tomorrow for the rest of the story…”

For now, back to September 2011 where today, thanks to the help I got from OWB, I reached the end of Chapter 1.  Tomorrow I start chapter 2.

I think.


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