Note: I actually wrote this a few weeks ago, but my computer died so I couldn’t post it. I’m feeling a lot better and a lot more inspired, but I still think this is an interesting question to examine so I’m posting it.
I was trying to come up with a really clever title for this post, but I guess this will have to do. Suffice to say, I have been going through a hard time lately, the details of which I will not be getting into in this post. But the reason I wanted to bring this up is because it’s effecting my writing, which is kind of what this whole blog is about, right?
I have never really believed in writer’s block. I’ve always thought of it as a lack of imagination and I have lacked many things in my life, but never imagination. I’ve never had the feeling that the well was dry. If anything, I’ve felt that I had too many ideas, more than I could ever possibly write down or do justice to. Of course, now that I’m saying all this I’m thinking, “Just wait, Shawna. Wait until you’ve written fifty books and then see how full the well is.” I’m sure there is someone older and wiser out there who has experienced writer’s block and is probably cackling at me behind my back, but whatever. This post is not about writer’s block. This post is about what to do when you don’t feel like doing anything, least of all writing a novel that the critic in your brain assures you probably sucks anyway so why bother?
Anyone who writes seriously is familiar with the age-old arguments from the ranks of more inexperienced writers: I just don’t feel like writing today. It’s Thursday, I can’t write on Thursdays. I’m not in the mood. I’m too tired. I’m not feeling inspired enough. I’m not wearing the right underwear, blah blah blah, I need a marionberry muffin. Anyone who feels this way should try doing an MFA program and see just how far inspiration gets them.
Moving on, Peter Beagle tells this story—which I think is the best description of what it really means to be an artist that I have ever heard—about his uncle who was a painter. Everyday this guy would get up, go to his studio and do the work, just like…wait for it…IT WAS HIS JOB! In other words, he didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. He would paint and sometimes it would go well and sometimes it wouldn’t. He didn’t lock himself in a garret and wait for a full moon to rise while wearing a spotted undershirt and holding a purple balloon (who does that?).
Still, being a pretentious pseudo-artist, being uninspired, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. What do you do when for lack of a better word you are simply depressed?
I’ve often been amused when going through hard times in the past by the well-meaning advice of friends who insist that I use my pain as inspiration in my work. I am not too embarrassed to admit that I love the romanticized notion of the despairing poet/writer who spills his soul onto the waiting page in heartsick despair, and I think everyone does use some of that pain in their work to some extent, but in reality it is really difficult to be in any sort of mental anguish and manage to write something coherent, much less powerful and moving and true. Pain is a raw emotion, especially recent pain, and those who try to make instant art out of it mostly get melodramatic, maudlin poetry that should probably never see the light of day. I have only ever managed to write one thing that I thought was beautiful when experiencing a great amount of raw pain and that was when my cat died and I still have no idea how I managed it.
It’s much easier to write about pain you can think about than it is to write about pain you don’t want to think about or that paralyzes you. So anyway, you’re in pain and you’re stuck and nothing seems very magical or meaningful and you’re pissed off at the universe because you had this whole word count goal you were aiming for and life so got in the way of that and what do you do? How do you get up every morning and pretend like nothing has changed? My answer so far has been: you don’t. You take a break from the angsty YA novel that is driving you insane and you write a new short story full of silliness and Christmas and a very depressed Norse god. And you don’t feel guilty about it. Because sometimes you need to push through a story, sure, but sometimes you just need to stop and take a break. Do something different. Do something fun and silly and lighthearted and not care if it sucks because it’s your Christmas present to yourself!
And the crazy thing is it seems to be helping. I’ve actually got ideas about going back to my novel and shaking things up. Like moving all the chapters around (thank you scrivener!) so they’re all in chronological order and I can actually try to build the story from the ground up instead of getting all confused cause my story has no foundation. Or even just allowing myself to daydream about it and play with all the what ifs. The hardest part has actually been starting, but once I get into a chapter (if things are going well) I actually do get a little swept up in it so it’s not such a slog. And I do feel bad still about not getting very much accomplished, but sometimes shit happens and it makes you realize, “I’m not writing for a word count goal or to impress people or get a publishing deal. I’m writing out of love. And what I need the most right now, after everything that’s happened, is love.”
So what about you, denizens of the interwebs? How do you manage to write through hard times and pain? Any advice?
2 thoughts on “Writing Through Hard Times”
Well first of all, I’m sorry about whatever it is that’s hard right now :(. I have really struggled through these things myself and I wish I had a magic answer, though none has been forthcoming. One thing that has helped recently is when my awesome advisor said to me, “Stop trying to write a book; just write.” Freeing myself from the book project to go explore other things really helped me to put aside that voice of “Dude, you suck. I mean really, really suck” for a while and still get some stuff done.
Thanks so much, Shelby 🙂 I think your advisor is brilliant and spot on. I’ve been really pushing myself hard this semester to get through this draft and worrying about only having one semester left and then having to go out into the real world, etc. I think it’s making things worse. So the idea of focusing on just writing and not completing a particular project or writing an entire book is a welcome release. Worrying about the big picture gets too overwhelming. I need to calm down and take things one step at a time.