An old post of mine, Hello, Book?, recently brought a question from Richard, over at Narrative. At the time I wrote that post, I was mired in my MFA thesis, a full-length travel memoir about a year I spent in South Korea. When I say mired, I mean, I was absolutely overwhelmed. Hindsight has brought a little more clarity on the situation I was in: I’d reached the point in the book where I had accomplished quite a lot, but all I could see what was needed to be done still. After all, the book was by no means finished, there was a lot of material left to add in, some restructuring needed to accommodate said material, and revision, revision, revision. I was so overwhelmed by the project that I couldn’t seem to work on it anymore. Richard asked: “What got you going again, if anything?”
I had never written a book, and I did not know what I was doing. I think I’ve learned since then that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve written a book before or not — every book is different, and every story presents its own set of challenges. Because of that, every book you write becomes the first book you ever wrote. Which is to say, I think it’s normal to lose confidence mid-way through a big project like that, to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and to wonder if it will ever be finished. And that kind of thinking, combined with the tediousness of working on the same piece of writing for a very long time, can bring on a kind of writers’ block. In my case, it wasn’t that I couldn’t write at all, but when I tried to work on my book, I felt lost, confused, overwhelmed and, yes, I’ll admit it — bored. I don’t mean that I thought my book was boring. I mean, that I had been writing the same thing for two years, and I longed for a change.
So, what to do? You’ve got a book you want to finish — after all, you’ve put in so much time and effort, it would be a shame to stop now — but you can’t seem to jumpstart that part of you that was so enthusiastic at the beginning. I’m no expert, but here are some things that have worked for me when this happens:
• Give yourself permission to take a break. Stop for a month. Make sure you define how long the break will be: you don’t want a brief pause to become a permanent one. Also, make sure you’re taking a break from your project, not a break from writing altogether.
• Read something that inspires you. I recommend NOT reading the genre you are writing in. Doing so can lead to inevitable comparisons and unintended blows to your self-confidence regarding your own project. My MFA professor suggested having “models” for the kind of book you want to write — that is, other books whose content, structure, and writing style are similar to what you’re writing. I had a couple of those for my travel memoir, and I referred to them a lot while I was working on the book. Those books were inspiring, in a way, but they were also like co-workers — they were involved with my project. It was when I stepped away from my book and those model books and read a well-written novel — something different — that I was inspired and remembered why I wanted to write my book in the first place.
• Get some feedback from some supportive, inspiring people. My MFA classmates read a number of chapters from my book and that was really helpful to a point. But no one had read the book as a whole. When I had a few people do that, I got the encouragement and perspective I needed to see me through some tough spots, structural problems, and a lot of self-doubt. Even spending time with people you find inspiring or creative but who have not read your work can also help jumpstart your creativity again.
• Don’t discount the possibilities. Your project may be better and farther along than you think it is. It’s easier to say that than to think it about your own work, I know. But sometimes when you can’t seem to work on a piece of writing any more, your brain might be telling you that you are finished. Perspective is so important. I’m a perfectionist about my writing, and I tend to overdo and overthink. It never fails to surprise me how discussing a piece of writing with a friend, or taking a break from it, will make me realize that I just need a few tweaks, not the big, stressful changes I was thinking I might need. I’m often surprised when I return to a piece of writing after a break to find that it’s in better shape than I thought.
• Small steps. One reason I was having trouble when I wrote that blog post was that I didn’t know where to begin to get back into my book. I could see the big picture, but I hadn’t broken that down into smaller, more manageable steps. I found that making lists helped a lot. Make them specific, as in, “add a paragraph explaining X on page 14 of Chapter 1,” or “rewrite ending to Chapter 6 to bring character Y more into the action.” Once I wrote some lists for what had to be done in each chapter, I could sit down at my laptop, look at my list for the chapter I was working on that day and go. No hours wasted considering all of the things still to be done, just an assignment for what had to be done that day.