Sunday, October 18, 2009

Once Around the Block

By Lisabet Sarai

Writer's block. It's a luxury that I can't afford. As I mentioned a few weeks ago when we were discussing writing habits, I normally set aside one day a week for writing. That's all I can manage, most weeks, and I have to spend that day productively if I want to achieve my goals--whether I feel like writing or not. The rest of my time is spoken for. If I don't write on the allocated day, I don't write. Enough said.

That doesn't mean that I always feel inspired. Sometimes the process of getting the words down is downright painful. But I do it anyway. I always have an ongoing project and I usually have a deadline. So I will sit down, open the file and bang away at the keyboard, even if what I'm creating seems to be total oushikusu (thanks, Garce!)

When the words aren't flowing, I try to relax my standards. I will force myself to leave a sentence or a paragraph that I know needs work and move on. I can return later, when the muse is in a more generous mood. I also try to turn off my inner critic. Yes, I know I used that same phrase a few pages ago, but let's just accept it for now. The more I obsess about how rotten my stuff is, the more difficult it is to fill the pages.

Actually, I think that "writer's block" is a vicious cycle. Our identities are so entwined with our writing that being blocked is terrifying. When we get stuck, we start to feel worthless. We question our talent and our commitment. Guilt and fear smother any hints of creativity. Writing becomes even more impossible. We wind ourselves up into an unproductive knot of negative emotions.

The key to unraveling this knot, at least for me, is to simply write, without thought or judgment or self-pressure. The days when it's the hardest, I will try to forget my deadline. I'll be happy if I can produce fifteen hundred words, instead of my target three thousand. At the end of the day, I will feel a sense of accomplishment, even if I know that the work isn't my best.

When I sold Raw Silk the first time, I was a total novice as far as contracts and the publishing world was concerned. The contract specified 85K words. I sent Black Lace a manuscript that was only 77K. I didn't realize that it mattered. I received a stern email from the editor indicating that they needed another eight thousand words within a few days or I'd be in violation of my contract.

I had a terrible cold. My head was pounding, my sinuses were clogged and I was probably running a fever. I wrote two new chapters in the course of a weekend, because I didn't have any choice. Reading them now, I think that they're among the best parts of the book.

I'm stubborn. Just ask my husband. And if I start something, then damn it, I'm going to finish it! There's a story from my childhood that says it all. When I was six or seven, my parents joined the YMCA so that my siblings and I could get the benefit of swimming lessons and other sports. Somehow I happened to be entered in a swimming race. I was never much of an athlete, but I did what I could.

The race was a half-dozen laps of the pool. My competitors finished while I was on my third lap. Nevertheless, I doggedly continued to paddle back and forth in order to complete the course. I vaguely remember that when I pulled my chubby little body out of the pool, there was a scattering of applause.

Inspiration is a wonderful thing. I love the buzz I feel when the words come easily, flowing from my imagination onto the page with scarcely any conscious intervention. Alas, that experience is relatively rare. (That's what makes it so amazing, perhaps.)

When inspiration fails, I fall back on perseverance. I decided years ago that I am going to take this author thing seriously. The only way to be a writer is to write. You can't wait for the right time, the right place, the right idea. And you can't allow fear to freeze your voice.


  1. I write when I can. It may only be a few words in longhand, but it's something. When I can't think of anything, I bead. Of course being retired helps with the time problem.

  2. My solution (for what it's worth!) is to have MORE THAN ONE project 'on the boil' at all times.
    It helps enormously if they're of different genres. At the moment I have a childrens' story (Pirate themed), a political thriller, an ecological disaster, a satirical piece (script), a Celtic mythology/family saga trilogy ( Vol. 2 half-finished) and a script for a Pantomime (Babes in the Wood).
    If I run short of inspiration in one of the above it's just a question of swapping focus until I am inspired to return to the one I put "on hold"
    Works for me ..... LOL

  3. It may not be a popular POV, but I always think unless you depend of writing for your living, or will be in breach of contract/fail a course if you don't do it, then if you have a block go and do something else. If you'd rather be watching TV, going for a walk, gardening, playing with the kids or knitting or playing football, DO it. Unless, as aforesaid, you write to eat. In that case, just get on with it. (Never heard of a farmer who was "blocked" on milking cows, or a shop assistant "blocked" on using the till, have you? Maybe they'd rather be doing something else, but if it's their job to do it, they do it.)

  4. Hi Lisabet,

    Good post. I'm a firm believer in deadlines. If you have enough of them, you don't dare allow anything to block you. LOL


  5. I find not having enough time is a problem. I'm cutting back on editing to be a better writer.

  6. I would have loved to see you pull your chubby little body from the pool, LOL! Those are the moments with kids that I enjoy.

    Sounds like you've got your writing life well in hand. Sometimes, a person just has to do it.


    ~ Jenna

  7. Hi Lisabet!

    So many good things in this post, (which is one of the advantages of being the first to post.).

    I've also found that when you feel blocked by something, its better to just lower yourexpaqtations or standards and just work. I also understand a little about what you were saying elsewhere about deadlines. Doing this blog, for me is one of those deadlines. Wednesday always looms over me like doom. Sometimes lightning strikes, sometimes it doesn't. I think your thing of knowing exactly when and where you;re going to write, is right on, even if I don;t do it that way. That's what Stephen King and other writers always advise. Have an apppointment with yourself when you expect to write and no other thing.

    Writer's block is hard. But you have break throughs. (I had an inetersting breakthorugh with the story I'm revising I want to tell you about later.)


  8. Lisabet,

    Well said. I have a lot of sympathy for those who do suffer from writer's block, I understand it can be debilitating, but my own personal solution to the problem is, as you've said here, perseverance and tenacity.



  9. Hey Lisabet - I can't imagine you ever being at a loss for words, but I know what you're talking about here.
    I'm such a screwy writer - writing in fragments - I guess I can always dip into the bag of words and phrases and snippits of conversations I carry around with me always. Leaving gaps is a great idea. Then you can always go back and fill it in later. Oh, if it was easy, anyone could do it! Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget and the upcoming novel, Night Surfing

  10. How did you know I had a chubby little, I mean big, Ass?


  11. "When inspiration fails, I fall back on perseverance."

    That needs to go on a fridge magnet somewhere. Or maybe on bookmarks. It definitely needs to be on a poster above every writer's desk.

    Thank you for the lovely article and for the amazing quote!


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