Sunday, April 6, 2008'll come to me in a minute

Question: Do you ever get writer's block? If so, how do you deal with it? And is the term "writer's block," a possessive, or "writers block," a plural?

Answer: Funny, dear imaginary question-asker, that you should ask that question, because I've been going through a bout of it lately (and that last question is my own -- I shift back and forth between possessive and plural, but I think it's more to do w/ me typing too fast and forgetting the apostrophe when I go plural. If anyone knows for sure, do share).

I've never met a writer who doesn't get writers block. It doesn't come from having nothing to say or to write about. Let me offer a simile: writers block is like opening a refridgerator full of food, staring at all of it, and saying, "there's nothing to eat." Ditto for the closet-full-of-clothes-and-having-nothing-to-wear-on-a-first-date syndrome. It's fear-based. It has nothing to do w/ the words (or being hungry, or well-dressed, etc.). Rather, it's about needing to fulfill something and fearing that you can't. I would guess that in the case of most writers, it's a perfection issue.

I often write so much in my head for days that when I finally sit at the computer or w/ my notebook to put it all on the page, I freeze up in fear that the perfect combinations of words and scenes and dialogue that I so wonderfully imagined are now lost to me. Worse still, I want the book, scene, essay, etc. finished, mastered in one draft, flowing like water, when in reality it's the babbling brook no matter how many times I've written it in my head.

I fear I have nothing to say. I fear that what I have to say has no meaning, makes no sense. I fear that what I have to say is worthless and matters to no one. I fear that what I have to say is stupid, or not funny. I fear that what I have to say is too truthful, or not truthful enough. I fear that what I have to say exposes too much. I fear that I am not good enough, that no one will like what I write, that no one will like me.

So how do I deal w/ it? Crawling up into a fetal position on my couch and watching three hours of "Law&Order CI" is one method... Seriously, though. The best thing to do is not fight it so much. "What you resist, persists."

I do one of several things. I either stop writing for a while and go back to thinking, or I freewrite about my writers block. It might look something like this: I finally have all the time in the world to write and now I'm sitting here staring at the screen and absolutely nothing is coming out. I'm drawing a total blank. I was intending to work on the next chapter of [insert novel title here], when [name] does [thing] and [other guy] walks in and catches her... Stating my intent sometimes (not always) opens the gate, and although it's really rocky at first (like striking or popping out the first few times at bat), eventually I get on a roll.

Another trick? I psych myself out, by writing this as my first line: This does not have to be perfect. It can be as crappy as it needs to be. It's a first draft. (If I'm feeling really blocked, I usually write: it's a fucking, god-awful, shitty first draft.) Believe me, it helps. I even shared this one w/ my students, and I can't tell you how many of them start their own drafts or in-class freewriting this way (w/out all the profanity, since they know they have an audience of more than themselves). It's about allowing, not resisting the fear, and surrendering to it. It's like saying, "hey, I know you're scared. It's ok to be."

Then there are days when I don't even get that far. I won't even go near the computer for days, or I'll do everything on it but open Word. I'll play solitaire on it for so long that after the fact I lament that I just wasted hours that I'll never get back, that new gray hairs came in while I was dealing a new game for the sixteenth time. I'll send emails to every single person in my address book; I'll write on my blogs or other people's blogs (heck, what do you think I'm doing right now?); I start googling things. I start replying to all the emails that replied to mine. I might even IM someone. You know it's really bad when cleaning my house, especially my bathroom, is a more appealing option than writing.

Guys like Stephen King tell you to write through it, and I suppose that's good advice. Really, it's about what works best for you. I do caution you to not let it go on for too long, though. The longer it passes w/out you doing something about it, the worse it gets.

What snapped me out of a recent block was my PIC (partner in crime) sending me a freewrite of imaginary blog responses for the novel we are co-writing (yes, the character has her own blog -- isn't that so art-imitating-life? -- trust me, hers is much more interesting and communal...). So I started replying to the comments w/ my own, as if they were real comments, and started to have fun. If we do wind up using them for the novel, I'd have to tone them down a bit (I think I took out my writers block frustration on the imaginary bloggers comments -- my own wound up being quite harsh and aggressive), but the point is that the next day I wrote at least ten pages longhand, and when I re-read them, I found that it was actually pretty damn good.

And so, now that I've finished this post, I think it's time to get the next ten pages of the novel written.

After I dust my livingroom. And my bedroom. And straighten out some papers. And I have to finish my taxes, too. And there's some prepwork for school that needs to be done. And I have to organize my sock drawer. But after that, I swear, I'm ready to go.

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