I’ve been thinking about my previous post on how to get unstuck/reinspired when mired in an all-consuming (read long and difficult) writing project … I’ve got some more suggestions. Three, to be exact. The first is simple, the second, a little tougher, and the third — very difficult. I suppose these (and the list of ideas in the previous post) are applicable when dealing with writers’ block, though I’ve been trying to avoid that term which I prefer to look at as more severe in scope than what you might experience on a daily basis while struggling with a piece of writing. Perhaps the term “writers’ block” is anxiety-provoking and therefore self-fulfilling?
Anyway, more on how to get unstuck:
• Get some exercise. Sounds hokey, perhaps, but it works. Go for a long walk. Visit your local gym. Attend a yoga class. I’ll be honest — the last thing I want to do when I’ve had a rough day on the writing front and am not feeling good about myself is to go work out. But every time I turn on my inner drill sergeant and get myself moving, my head clears. It doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise — a nice walk works just fine, as long as you’re walking in a peaceful place. You may find that your head clears and you can move forward with your writing immediately; or, you might find that the rest of your day is still blah, but the next morning you wake up feeling better about your writing project. Either way, exercise helps. It really does.
• Start over on a blank page. I don’t mean throw away what you’ve done so far. I mean, put aside what you’ve done, and look at the point at which you got stuck. Perhaps it’s a paragraph, perhaps it’s an entire chapter. Work from that point forward on your blank page, without looking at the previous version. I find that there’s something freeing about starting again on a blank document. You can escape whatever voice, tension, mood, structure, etc. you’ve got going on the earlier version. You don’t have to worry about the surrounding graphs and how things flow together. Just rewrite and rethink. Allow yourself to do it completely differently. It’s not easy to break free of what might be an entire book full of constraints to write the same information in a different way, but the blank page or new computer document provides a symbolic break, a sort of “what if I wrote it like this?” opportunity.
• Get at the truth. Yep, this is the hard one. And perhaps the opposite of the point I made in my previous post about returning to a project after a break and finding that it is in better shape than you thought. I think I may have mentioned previously that I heard a Joyce Carol Oates quote (I can’t find it anywhere, alas) somewhere in which she said something to the effect of: I don’t get writers’ block. Writers’ block is what happens when you are being dishonest in your writing. (Major paraphrase. Sorry, JCO.) And so, what if you return to your project after a break, only to discover that you haven’t been honest with yourself; that is, your story isn’t conveying the emotional truth it needs to convey in order to be successful. This is the hard one, because it means (in the event that the emotional truth is absent) making some hard decisions. This is, I now believe, why I got stuck in my travel memoir about Korea, only I couldn’t quite have articulated that at the time. I’ve now got a couple years of perspective on that project, and I can see that I worked really, really hard at telling the story the right way, in terms of structure, dialogue, characterization, etc. But I didn’t get at my own emotional truth. As a result, the book feels hollow. It’s flat. There’s a lot of interesting information and it’s well-organized. But it lacks soul.
I bring this up because I think diagnosing the problem when you’re stuck is as important as finding solutions. And I really believe that not getting at the emotional core of a story is, potentially, one of the things that can cause writers to hit a wall.
As for solutions, well…more on truth in my next post.