Writing process: How to get unstuck and have spanking clean toilets too

I have a book manuscript that I’ve dabbled with on and off since 2005. I recently cleared out my creative space and once again opened up the box with everything related to this project: a folder bulging with first drafts and revised drafts, research books, notes, email print-outs, three or four different outlines, story ideas, suggestions, schedules.

So many false starts, hopes, plans, dreams. All incomplete. Where to begin??? Like so many times before, I slapped the lid back on the box and shoved it back in its corner under my desk, out of sight but never out of mind.  My sense of failure was palpable.

Why can’t I finish this damn thing? Was it time to give it up? Had the moment to tell this story passed? I continued to berate myself as I threw in another load of laundry then headed upstairs to make dinner and clean the bathrooms, which is way more fun than feeling like a failure. I might not be able to finish this story, but by golly, my toilets will sparkle and I’ll make the best damn Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff ever!

The thing is, every time I return to this project, I get stuck right here. It didn’t help that I had some chapters in one computer file, others on a USB stick, still more on a disk, and multiple print-outs of copies and versions of drafts. I am organized in every aspect of my life, what the hell happened here? How would I know what was what? Where to start?

And then, shortly after the family was full of stroganoff, the toilets were sparkling, kids were in bed, and I was just about to overindulge in chocolate, I had an epiphany:

I could start over.

I sat up straight on the couch and put my chocolate down. Who said I have to try to put the pieces together from the way I saw this story five years ago? I always knew what the problem was: my story needed a skeleton to hang on, but every time I went back to the pieces, I was forcing the pieces to fit a structure that wasn’t working. Isn’t that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time?

Yep, I’ve been driving myself crazy. But just like that, I gave myself permission to try a new structure. It seemed so simple, but I guess I had been so focused on making the square peg fit the round hole, I didn’t think to look for a new peg.

So, I’m starting fresh. I’m actually pretty excited about it, because I feel like I have a new skeleton that can work. I will pull details and scenes from the 200+ pages I’ve already written when and where it makes sense. That might sound depressing to some who aren’t used to the writing process, but sometimes you have to write a lot to find out what you have to say and the best way to say it.

If you’re stuck, consider clearing out your creative work space to make room for new ideas. Spend time in your creative space. Look at your old drafts. Don’t force  yourself to solve any problems. Try not to berate yourself. Read. Think. Ponder. Simmer. Just show up every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and see what happens.

As for my book, I don’t know if this new insight will solve everything. I hope I will finish this damn thing once and for all. Mostly, I feel pretty good. I’m trying. I’m writing again.

When you hate writing (but you have to do it anyway)

I hate monkeys. No offense to monkeys or monkey enthusiasts. They seem so smart yet unpredictable and mean. Once a monkey tried to pee on my kids and I through the zoo cage. When I have a bad dream, monkeys are always there, lurking, biting or chasing me.

I am telling you this now because whenever someone says to me, “You’re a writer? *shudder* I hate writing!” It’s hard to fathom anyone hating something I love so much. Then I think  of monkeys and I understand. People fear writing almost as much as they fear doing their own electric work on their homes. You could die by touching the wrong color wire. No one is going to die by writing the wrong word, but you’re just as vulnerable. Will it hurt? Will people laugh (when you’re not trying to be funny)? Does it say what you want it to say? Will you sound like an idiot? Are you an idiot?

Here are five ways to less your writing anxiety and hopefully hate writing a little less:

#1 First drafts are like first loves. Remember your first romance, when you’re intoxicated by the possibilities? First drafts can be like that–you’re excited about the idea, you see the potential, it seems absolutely perfect–until you pick up your pen and start to write. Don’t let that stop you! Let the words pour out. Turn off your censor. Let it rip. See where it takes you. You and I both know that somewhere down the line, your head will need to step in and help your heart sort it all out. But not here, not in the first draft. OK?

#2 Revision is like plucking weeds. I used to think that anything I wrote was perfect the first time I wrote it, exactly as I wrote it. But seven years of MFA training taught me that the first draft is simply planting the seed. Revision is growing that first draft by watering it with a strong editor’s eye, plucking out the dead spots, spraying for bugs that eat at the heart of the story and fertilizing what’s left until it’s the envy of all your neighbors/readers/other writers.

#3 Writing is yoga for your brain. It lets your mind breathe. It makes your brain more flexible. It keeps your linguistic muscles limber. A little writing a few days a week in or outside the office can help you feel more comfortable in your skin, especially when you have to write. If you only write once a quarter, of course you’ll feel rusty, hesitant and uncertain. The sound of your own voice on the page will be like hearing your voice on a recording–weird, unnatural and not at all what you thought it sounded like. It would be like jumping into an advanced yoga class when you’ve been a coach potato your whole life. So practice once in a while, even if it’s just a Facebook status update (it counts).

#4 Feedback is like foreplay. Too much, too soon and your mojo is out the window. Not enough and you’re left unfulfilled and pissed off. Good feedback starts small–you share your work when you’re ready with a small, trusted group. If they don’t laugh at the right spots–or the wrong ones–or if they fall asleep in the middle, then see #2. Revise. Try again. When it works, your audience will laugh, cry, nod their heads voraciously or gasp in surprise, you’ll get off on getting the reactions you wanted. Soon you’ll come to love how the right feedback pushes your work forward, inspires new ideas and honey, you’ll want more more more.

#5 There are worse things than writing. Speaking of getting the reactions you wanted, my friend Kim recently told me about a zoo that had an “issue” with monkeys throwing their poo at visitors. No sh*t! The over-reactions of patrons made the monkeys throw more poo. Eventually the zoo hired actors to stand in front of the monkey cages and not react when they got smacked by monkey poo. Soon the monkeys got bored and stopped flinging their poo. What’s a little writing compared to a sh*tty job like that?

Share