Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2011

Writer's Block

I am someone who tends to say rather loudly that I don't believe in writer's block and that I have never had it. But it's a problem that plagues many writers and as I thought more about it, I realized I have had writer's block plenty. I just deal with it a little differently, and I've never called it that.

Do other professional people get blocked? Do truck drivers get truckers' block? Do checkers get checkers' block? Well, that's not what they call it, either. Do athletes get athletes' block? Actually, they do. It's called being overtrained. And it's not so much a physical set of symptoms as it is a mental one (which is why a blood test will tell you almost nothing about overtraining). Athletes who are overtrained lose interest in their workouts. They stop thinking about the future. They are irritable. They often lose their appetite. They tend to lose weight. Sound familiar?

Do you get life block? We call that depression. And it may be useful to think about the symptoms of depression as they relate to writers. Some of the symptoms are: lack of interest in normal life, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, problems in relationships, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, and a feeling of darkness or pressure.

At least, that's what I felt like when I had depression. But if you'd looked at my habits, at what I actually did when I was depressed, you wouldn't have thought I fit the typical profile of a depressed person. I felt bad, but I didn't change any of my habits. I got up every morning whether I wanted to or not. I did my daily workout whether I felt like it or not. I got the chores done around the house. I did my writing. I cooked dinner, helped kids with homework, drove them on errands, completed church responsibilities. All while thinking that I would rather be dead. Whenever I looked at checklists, I didn't have enough of the right marks to be considered "depressed" clinically, so it took me a long time to go to a doctor, who assured me that in fact, I was depressed.

Yeah, so I think the same thing happens to me when I get writer's block. It feels like writer's block on the inside, but it doesn't look like writer's block. And it's just as much writer's block as any other writer who stops writing. I'm just really, really stubborn, and I like my habits. Call me OCD, but I don't like to go on vacations because they disrupt my carefully planned schedule for each day. I don't like sleeping in a strange bed, either. Or eating different food.

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So, when I get writer's block, I get up at the same time and go down to my office and I sit at my computer and I write the same number of words that I have always written. Do I still have writer's block? Yes, I do. Because I am not enjoying my writing. Because I am avoiding work on the things that I care about. And also because of what I am telling myself in my head about myself and my writing.

For me, writer's block most often happens when I have received some kind of mental or emotional blow. It can be in the form of a rejection (usually a rejection that comes with what is probably meant as constructive criticism). Or it can be in the form of a conversation with an editor or a friend or a critique group about a manuscript that I am particularly attached to or have high hopes for. Some manuscripts simply matter more to me than others. I don't know why this is. I sometimes work on manuscripts that are "fun." Other times I work on manuscripts that try to explain the deep meaning of the universe or tell a particularly personal story of mine. It's this latter group that tend to be more difficult to have critiqued because I am more attached to them and have more difficulty separating myself from the manuscript when the critique happens.

When a "fun" story is critiqued, I sometimes disagree with the opinion and send it out anyway. Or I may agree with the critiques, understand how to fix it and do so, or shrug and decide it isn't what I want to spend my time doing right now. It is certainly easier when I can look at a manuscript and see it simply as a manuscript. It may take some weeks or months before it happens, but usually, I can see my own words as dispassionately as if I were doing a critique for someone else. It helps to print out the manuscript and write comments on it as I would someone else's. I sometimes even write myself an "editorial letter" that has a description of what I want the manuscript to be, and then an action list of things that need to be corrected in it.

Then there are the manuscripts that are different. I don't always know that I'm going to end up feeling personally attached to a manuscript. Because of the rather loosely structured way in which I plan out stories in my head (or don't plan them out at all), I often discover characters and themes and plots that I didn't know were going to come out. And once they are there, the whole book becomes something unexpectedly real. Not just a book anymore. A part of me. And once it is part of me, it is a lot harder to work on it. Think about how doctors aren't supposed to operate on family members. Or themselves. It's really hard to cut yourself open and poke around inside without fainting from the pain. That's the way it can feel with particular manuscripts for me.

What happens when I end up with one of these manuscripts is that I tend to share less easily. I have a group of people who I can ask to read a manuscript if I want some advice, and I trust them to give me a real opinion. Not necessarily to critique me in detail like an editor would, but to let me see if the manuscript is something to get excited about or not. But if a book is the kind I know I will have a problem with, I don't send it out. It sits on my computer and waits for me to be ready to get back to it.

A year or so later, I will return to it. I may or may not be able to tinker with it. At some point, I am ready to send it off to another voice. I have to walk away from the computer and take deep breaths after the final click has been made. I feel physically exhausted as if I had done a race, and my heart pounds in my chest. I have to leave the actual office space where I work, to get psychically away from the manuscript, and when I make myself work again, I purposely focus myself tightly on something completely different, a manuscript in a different genre or style that will let me think very little about my "precious."

I am working along on something else, almost successful at keeping myself from thinking about that one special book, and then I'll get an email or the meeting of the group when my book will be discussed finally comes. And then the truth comes out. Often, the problems turn out to be things that are so deeply entwined in the manuscript that I cannot see how I could change them. Sometimes the problems are that I have written something so wild and cross-genre that it is going to be a hundred times more difficult to find an editor and house for. Or the book is too dark or too weird. I don't tend to get problems like, "this character doesn't feel real to me" or "I don't believe this plot point" the way that I do on manuscripts that I know I can fix.

And the problem when I get this sort of a critique isn't that I disagree. It's that I agree and there is no solution that anyone can think of. I feel that all of the time I've invested in the manuscript is about to be flushed down the toilet. But I still am attached to the manuscript, which means I am going to be flushed down the toilet with it. Unless I can figure out how to save it, but I can't. Because really, no one can figure out how to save a book like this. It might be of interest to biographers, if I believe there will ever be any.

Writer's block to me is this: me holding onto a manuscript which is swirling down the toilet and I am trying to pull it back out and keep myself from getting sucked into the vortex at the same time.

So what do I next? I have no idea what to do. That is the problem. I also have no hope. That is the bigger problem. It's a creative pain that turns me into a coward. I can keep running for 50 miles or so, convincing myself that I just have to run 100 more steps. But when I'm exhausted and discouraged with a book, and a mountain of creative work looms, I can't manage it.

What I do with manuscripts that I still love, but do not know how to fix (also known as writer's block):

1. Tell myself that someday someone will see the true genius of them. Maybe in ten years. Maybe when I am dead. But not today.

2. Add a new title to my list of books that I would like to be smart enough to work on again in the future. (I've got about eight books on this list right now.)

3. Give myself permission to rage and cry, and then get on with another manuscript. One idea that doesn't work is not going to kill me. A real writer has loads of ideas, right?

4. Wait until I find just the right person to ask to critique said manuscript, because of some confluence of influences. (This has happened on a couple of occasions, but it's not predictable or controllable, certainly.)

5. Make a list of reasons why I love the manuscript and can't give up on it. Look at the list and see if it is enough of a reason to keep banging my head against the wall.

6. Read a lot of books that might have something to do with the problem in the book I'm blocked on. Sometimes it may knock something out of my head. Or at the very least, make me so tired of the genre that I stop caring as much.

7. Take a few bits of the manuscript out of order and see if I can make something else with them.

8. Give myself a deadline, like a certain date, when I have to decide to either work on the damn thing or let it go.

9. Write a hundred different ideas for how to begin the book. Beginnings really matter and sometimes you can get at what you want by starting in a different direction. This worked for me once.

10. Think about getting another job. This is not just flippant. It's actually helpful for me to imagine other jobs I might have instead of being a writer. The longer I spend thinking about it, the less I want to do it. It can be strangely affirmative.

There is just some kind of magic that causes a writer to care about a book. It's an important kind of magic. If we never felt that we had to work on something, writers would probably never go through all the pain and difficulty of getting any book published. It's too hard. So losing that isn't something that I want to do. But sometimes I wish that I had a little more control over it. The subconscious seems to control a lot of my creativity, and I've found after some years that the more I try to fiddle with it, the more it tends to retreat and then I don't get anything done. So, it is what it is. When I get blocked, it's like a wall in front of me. Finding another way around the wall, however circuitous, works for me. Or sometimes the wall remains and I have to learn to live with it.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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