Are You Wasting?

The catalyst of writer's block isn't always just not knowing what to write. It can be a few things, depending on the day.

Ideas are part of my writer's block today. When a writer doesn't write recreationally (novel concept, but sadly common *pun intended), their brain is like a water balloon that someone left on a dripping faucet. The balloon gets bigger and bigger, and droops low in the sink. Eventually it explodes (not literally, of course), or even if you take it off the tap it's bloated, clumsy, and unmanageable.

Thinking time is also contributing to today's writer's block. Between work and trips and church, I've spent less time doing what introverted writers like doing best: staring at the wall (trying not to drool, of course) and contemplating the meaning of life (loving God, loving others, writing about it, duh).

Drama and uncertainty also contribute a nice flavor to the cocktail of writer's block. If you normally use all ten fingers to type, and six of them are in big bandages, typing is harder. Half my mind is occupied with thoughts about our future (mostly when we're going to get a puppy . . .) and people I love who are sad. It's hard to focus on one thing when you're really thinking about a dozen things.

This next part does relate, I promise.

I work with a lady who's a veteran storyteller. Over the years she's written more than 500 feature stories (which is a lot, since she's not very old). She has a special knack for pulling a theme out of an interview, and weaving it into an article so seamlessly that the reader barely even notices. Then at the end you're scratching your head wondering how you got from A to Z because you didn't notice the journey. Every theme points to God's sovereign intervention, in an honoring way. Basically, if I can write stories like she can write them when I'm her age, I'll be ecstatic.

Today she was talking about how God doesn't waste anything. Even when we feel like something is wasted (i.e., time spent sick, injured, maybe even just job-searching or researching or waiting for something to change), it's not a waste for Him. His economy uses our trials, struggles, joy, waiting, all of it, for good.

It struck a chord with me, because I hate wasting time.

If someone is doing something that I think I could do faster, my soul chafes violently. I'm not patient in any sense of the term, and waiting or slowing down often feels like a punishment. Curtis (he's very wonderful) has had to teach me how to be patient (or at least feign patience) over the past few years—usually leading by example.

Often, moving slower feels like a waste of time. And rest feels like a waste of time. Sometimes thinking feels like a waste of time. And writer's block ALWAYS feels like a waste of time, energy, and articulation. But God doesn't waste anything, not even writer's block (or waiting, or being sick, or ___________).

So for once, instead of writing an angsty post about how I detest writer's block, today I'm thankful for it. Because God's not wasting it.


*** You'll be happy to know that for the past week, I've been speaking to strangers every time I'm in the elevator. So far, I've averted any catastrophic social situation—but stay tuned, it'll come.

Writing is Like Running

I write and edit all day most days. Still, trying to write my own thing after almost a month of keyboard silence is like trying to learn to write for fun all over again. I'm gritting my teeth and frowning at my screen, trying to intimidate it into yielding high-caliber work. So far, all my laptop has done is stare back at me with a bored, mildly amused expression. Occasionally it yawns and asks if I'm done yet. I can take a hint. Maybe (not).

Self-admitted, I'm not a poet—I respect the art, but it's never been my choice of medium. Well, not for a long time. When I first learned that poems didn't really have to rhyme or have any structure, I went poem-crazy. Filled up a notebook at least, with fine work. It was really quality stuff, like:

The sky is blue today
I see the blue sky and the green grass
and I hope to get a letter
from grandma in the mail.

That phase passed, though (to everyone's relief). Now I realize that poetry is in a class alone, especially for communicating emotion and ideas simultaneously. But sometimes it's also in a class of complete nonsense, which nobody admits because It's so deep and beautiful that it thwarts my comprehension. Or, as us common folk would say, I don't get it. In an effort not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I read poetry when I come across it and try very hard to decipher it. I have probably a 60 percent success rate. It's tricky for a total literalist like me, who reads:

I spilled the milk
all over the floor

And thinks, What a bummer. Did you clean it up or did you call the dog in? A skilled poetry-interpreter reads the SAME THING and is on the verge of tears because they see the author grieving over an immeasurable loss that will have more than one implication on his future.

And I'm over here thinking, Never mind, I give up. I'll just try to color inside the lines with my crayons. Let me know when recess starts.

But enough is enough. I wasted a lot of your time with nonsense about poetry (which I really do think is great), because I'm secretly hoping maybe you won't actually get to my poem because YES, writers are occasionally nervous about people reading their stuff.

In the rhythm of life
writing is like running.

Do it all the time
and you'll breeze past obstacles
with long, steady sentences
and barely break a sweat.

Start when you're out of shape
and it's agony
as you try to say something
but can't because
you just

Reading good writing,
like watching people run,
is motivating
Maybe someday I could be that good
but only if you work very, very hard
and I promise it won't always be fun.

And if there's a point
if it's to win a race
or deliver a message
or beat a personal record
then there is delight in the accomplishment.

But if it's obligation
or duty
then word after word feels like
misery and never-ending drudgery.

Start now
practice always
and focus on Someone that matters.

That's the best way to do it
in running too
but especially
in writing.

Smaller Bites, Dash. Yikes.

At the beginning of The Incredibles, the family sits down for dinner. Dash, a 4th grader, tries unsuccessfully to cut his slab of steak (which is at about eye level). He shoves a corner of the steak in his mouth and growls as he tries to bite a chunk off the slab. At this point, his mother's maternal instinct kicks in, and she says,

"Smaller bites, Dash. Yikes!" Without missing a beat, she continues, "Bob, could you help the carnivore cut his meat?" Mr. Incredible cuts through the plate and goes to get a new one (but really to read the newspaper), and chaos ensues in the dining room, and it's wonderful comic pandemonium that any parent immediately understands.

Sometimes you have to give up doing everything so you can do something.

William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well. In the first chapter, he writes about a writing panel he was on at a school.

"What do you do on days when it isn't going well?" Dr. Brock was asked. He said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better. I then said that the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. I said that writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke."

It's not a good reason to not do something because you don't feel like it, you're tired, or you can't think of anything to say. Those are fancy ways to say you're neglecting a gift.

You have to do something, though.

this post is a struggle

For three weeks I've written almost nothing, because of cleaning and work and, well, life. Mostly the second two—my house is evidence that the first one has (how shall we say it graciously...) clearly hasn't been taking too much of my attention.

Sometimes writing feels like a sport, only instead of one season on and one season off a year there are six or eight of each. Sometimes it's an on season, and I'm not awake for long enough to write everything down that I have to say. Other times it's an off season, and no matter how desperately I want to write, I have nothing to say and no way to say it. The biggest difference is that sports is supposed to have an off season, but writing is like a savings account; the more time you put into it, the better it gets (AKA, no off season).

I can continue the analogies if you want, but it might become (assuming it isn't already) far fetched. I'll stop to save us both, the only problem is the less I can think of to write about, the more analogies I think of . . .

Writing is like a car—sometimes it starts alone, and sometimes it needs a jumpstart.
Writing is like a Christmas tree—it's better when it has a point.
Writing is like exercise—if you don't do it, you get out of shape.
Writing is like leftovers—sometimes it's better the second time around, and sometimes it's way worse.
Writing is like sports—you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you break a bone and have to sit on the bench for three months.

I guess my point is that sometimes writer's block is selective. It blocks all the substantive ideas and sits like a two-ton gorilla on the part of the brain that understands logic and writes it down. The past month, several gorillas have been hibernating on that part of my brain.

I'm poking them with a stick, though, because they're getting obnoxious. And like the famous lady from the internet says, "Ain't nobody got time for that."

What Takes My Breath Away

A lot of things in life take my breath away:

  • The "Hallelujah Chorus," from Handel's Messiah. I've heard it probably a thousand times in my life—and my heart still swells with the crescendo and glory of the conclusion.
  • The sunrise every morning, even though I can't see most of it through tall buildings. That's the biggest reason my heart longs for the country.
  • The memory of people I know and love who are in heaven—and the knowledge that someday I'll be there too.
  • Curtis's face when he buys me flowers, or does the dishes, or sees me after I've been at work all day.

There are more, many more, but then you'd be bored and I'd get too distracted.

As a writer, I'm constantly looking for other writers who can make me feel and take my breath away. I read a lot of things every day—and many of them leave me completely unmoved. Writing can be perfectly functional, but it can still leave me uninspired and uninterested. It's a consistent treat to read something excellent.

Today, I read three things that took my breath away.

The first is a casual obituary, more of a tribute, written by Jerry Jenkins about Kent Puckett. I started reading by accident, as I flipped through a 7-year-old publication looking for ideas for a project I'm working on. What began as a casual glance turned into elbows on the desk and complete absorption. I've never heard of Kent Puckett until today—but after reading a 400 word tribute, I feel like I know him. I'm happy for him that he's in heaven, but suddenly I'm missing someone I've never met. Jenkin's concluding remarks are as follows:

Kent said, “Yeah, I’m trying to take care of myself. Who knows, I might live to be a centurion.” I only wish he had.

This marks an outstanding piece of writing. Well done, Mr. Jenkins. (Click here to read the whole tribute.)

The second is an email from a friend. Writer's block is something I write about with relative frequency, because I experience it with relative frequency. Whenever I have it, I write about it. It's always vaguely startling when someone tells you something about yourself that you didn't know. Then when you hear it or read it, you can actually hear the thud of the hammer on the nail. Today, a friend gave me advice on writer's block—but it was really advice about life. After rereading the email a half dozen times, I printed it off to put in my special book of writing that has warmed me, cheered me, chilled me, and inspired me. It concluded,

Those aspirational writers—the ones wearing a French beret and listening to Miles Davis and sipping lattes at Starbucks while waiting for inspiration to strike—they’ll never get it, because they don’t have the discipline to crank out 2,000 words a day, every day.

I promptly threw out all my French berets when I got home. (Just kidding. Haven't owned one since I was a kid—my brother got me this cool maroon beret for either Christmas or my birthday one year, and I wore it every day until the Fourth of July. I think since then it's gone the way of all the world.)

The third and final is a book. For my birthday, Curtis (he's very wonderful) got me How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz. After opening it and seeing the font and and formatting (and because the cover is BRIGHT ORANGE with BRIGHT YELLOW letters), I checked the copyright date. It's 1981. Almost dinosaur ancient—but, my parents are proof that good things did happen in the 1900s before I was born, so I kept reading.

And it's absolutely excellent. It's a personable, humorous, helpful how-to book about writing, publishing, and editing, but mostly writing. It's spectacular. The title of chapter three:

The changing marketplace
I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.
— Dean Koontz

I've added something else to my list of personal goals: I'd like to learn how to take someone's breath away (in a brief, good sort of way) with my writing.

Two Kinds of Writer's Block

There might be more psychological diagnoses, but I've observed two distinct writer's blocks.

Mental writer's block hinders your technical capacity to form sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. It often happens without rhyme or reason (too much fruit for lunch? stubbed your toe this morning? bad talk with your boss?), and settles on everyone occasionally. The best way to overcome it is to write. Move your desk to an empty room up against a white wall, and tape your arms to the desktop so the only thing you can reach is the keyboard (or pen and paper, if that's your style). Write about anything that comes to mind. Your socks. Aunt Mildred's AWFUL brussels sprout soup. Your upstairs neighbor's horse-shoed monster that comes out at night. 

After you start, the ideas will flow as you transition to writing for your passion project (if that's Aunt Mildred's soup, give it up now).

Emotional writer's block hinders your soul from creating. It feels empty, like you have nothing to say, even though there's plenty to write about. It doesn't effect the technical aspect of writing; you're still perfectly capable of mastering syntax and grammar (if you could to begin with), but ideas have no value. There's a jumble of concepts waiting to be framed into beauty, but you can't see where the edges fit together and it's too hard to try.

After staring into space and struggling to harness listless mental energy, you close the computer, and think, tomorrow I'll have something to say.

But tomorrow doesn't often bring motivation that didn't come today, and sooner or later the soul bankruptcy from not doing what you love is greater than the emotional weariness and pain that stopped you.

So pick up your pen, choose anything to say, and start again. God didn't give us gifts so we wouldn't use them because it's too hard.

Why It's Important to Write

There are a few reasons that I get writers block. 

First is the completely elusive cause that no one understands, the sudden disappearance of all sensible content from the conscious mind. One moment there are dozens of thoughts and ideas scurrying around your mind—the next they've vanished, leaving no remnant.

Second is the world of distractions. Writing in my house means that the house needs to be clean and neat (dishes washed, clothes folded, and table cleared of papers and clutter), otherwise it's a constant battle between my desire for a clean space and my will to write. Writing in a public space means that there are dozens of people for me to observe, and my mind would always rather wander than work.

The third is like the rusted hinge, the scuff free shoes, the ten year old car with 2,000 miles. It's hard to do anything cold turkey—diet, exercise, sing, and write. I write every day, partially because I love it but also because if I don't, when I come back to the keyboard all that greets me is a blank screen and the crickets. And the crickets. And the crickets.

I'm learning to write with dogged persistence. Sometimes it's tiring, often it's hard, but it's consistently rewarding.

How I Beat Writers Block

Classic writers block takes two forms: 

  1. Getting up to a certain point then not being able to continue. You've written long and hard, and suddenly, at the end of the sentence, you can't think of what comes next. It doesn't matter how hard you try, the villain won't pick up the gun and the heroine stays home in her pajamas. After hours of staring at the screen, you decide maybe you'd make a good chef (writing is for pale bookworms and nervous journalists with big glasses, after all), so you buy a cookbook from Amazon and start googling french cooking terms. 
  2. Nothing to say. You've sat down to write, and you've written forty-five first sentences—and you don't like any of them. None of them catch on, each one more flaccid than the last, and every time you come up with something maybe even a little good, the burst of inspiration dies out like a shooting star landing in the ocean. Dead. Completely. Sunken to the dark seaweed-y depths to live with bottom dwellers and pale fish with large eyes. You get it.

I don't know of any diehard methods to beat writers block, but I can tell you what I do: Write. About writers block. I write about how I despise it, how it makes me feel worthless and miserable, how it robs me of all inspiration and love for writing that usually comes so naturally. I write about how frustrating it is to want to say something and not be able to, like the boy who wants to ask the pretty girl to dance but he just... can't... get... the... words... out... there... Pretty soon, I've written a paragraph. If I'm feeling particularly spiteful (which is rare—I may have ditzy spells, but I'm not vindictive by nature), I'll have a page. Suddenly (while my brain was learning french and my fingers were flying with wrathful vengeance against something so small and obnoxious), the heroine has put on her super-suit, the villain is holding up a bank, and the shooting star is resurrected in blazing glory.

It may not work for everyone—but it's better than staring at the screen in doleful misery. 

Maybe it will work for you.