Today I’m pleased to feature a post on writer’s block from friend and fellow author, Heather Douglas. Heather is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of a book of poetry and was recently awarded Astoria Visual Art’s Writer in Residence. She also writes for Coast Weekend. More of her work can be found at OscarAstoria.com.
“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” –Charles Bukowski
Whether the phrase writers’ block conjures up an image of Jack Nicholson in The Shining obsessively typing the same phrase on his typewriter, or a romance novelist at their peaceful mountain retreat with a cup of tea waiting desperately for inspiration to come, the struggle is real for many writers.
Stephen King, a very prolific writer and America’s most famous of the horror genre once said “amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” While King is absolutely correct, it doesn’t hurt to have a few strategies to employ from time to time.
My relationship with writing has reflected the ebb and flow of my own creative life. In elementary school, I was encouraged and rewarded by events like the Oregon Writing Festival at Portland State University where I could meld minds with kids like me. I loved creative writing and poetry and had some of my work published in the local paper and won some school wide writing contests. Along with other kids in my neighborhood, we created a newspaper called The Tapiola Times (named after the park I grew up next door to); we wrote movie reviews, comic strips and from time to time ‘investigative’ article and features. Putting pen to paper and writing was easy back then and was a blast—I was good at it, I liked it and I could say what I wanted and think hard about it without getting flustered in everyday conversations.
Middle school began what I would call the ‘essay and book report years.’ The formulaic pattern of essay writing was stifling. I was no longer expressing my own imagination and creativity, but writing analysis about the creative work of authors who were dead and gone. It’s not that I had no love for the classics. I spent half of one summer reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles in a tent I had set up in my parents’ backyard—but I didn’t get to choose what classics I wanted to write about—yet, there is value in pushing through work that is difficult.
Yet, I craved a balance between expressing my own creativity and following the rules in school. I no longer loved writing, but I never suffered from writer’s block because I adapted; I began to rely on my work ethic—something I had thankfully nurtured through sports—you push through the pain, get the job done and don’t complain. I begrudgingly became friends with the essay, the book report and the worksheet. I was rewarded and encouraged by my teachers for my efforts in writing.
In college, I majored in English and was required to write copiously in the standard essay format. I wrote very little, if any creative pieces. I realized that if I was going to write about more than just famous works, I would have to write on my own. It was a tumultuous time for me emotionally, and I began to lean on writing as a form of expression and therapy; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries in great detail about what I was feeling at the time. I even earned a coveted compliment from a notoriously unrelentingly strict professor of James Joyce. He said I had talent and should consider getting a PhD to teach English. Although I was beyond flattered, I couldn’t imagine that the rest of my writing life would be spent centered around studying the works of a dead author—no matter how talented or epic.
While writing saved my life in a time of great existential loneliness during the college years, I went through a long phase of what I can only call tongue in cheek a phase of “creative constipation”—otherwise known as a decade of writer’s block. I stopped filling my journals and collapsed in exhaustion after my college graduation with the hopes of taking a huge break from essay writing and literary analysis.
Although I stopped writing, the ideas never stopped coming. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic author, said about creativity, “possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet; if you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do—and you might not like the job it invents.”
In the past 5 years I have found my way back to writing through blogging, journalism, poetry and the occasional non-fiction story. I also teach high school students to find their voice through writing. I want them to feel inspired and empowered to try out different genres of writing. I don’t want them to experience the frustration of having no outlet for their feelings.
It has been a difficult journey, but these days I have a healthy balance between work ethic and inspiration. If I were to give advice to my young writing self about moving through creative blocks, this is what I would say now.
You are Free to Write Crap
In Natalie Goldberg’s book Wild Mind Living the Writer’s Life, one of her bedrock rules to writing is this: “you are free to write the worst crap in America.” You have to start somewhere, and keeping the pen moving whilst writing what you may think is the worst crap is better than not writing at all. Worst case scenario: it IS crap, but that’s what multiple, successive drafts are for. Best case scenario: it actually isn’t crap and you’re just too hard on yourself.
You Are a Writer if You Write
If you run, you are a runner. If you write, you are a writer. If you’ve always “wanted to write,” or you have a plan to “write someday,” or you have “a novel in your head,” you’re a dreamer, not a writer. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. One of the lessons you learn as you mature is that work ethic nearly always beats talent.
Writing is Work
Hemingway famously said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing can be scary, emotional and terrifying. But it’s work and it’s very worthwhile work.
Smack Down the Internal Editor
What Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” is the internal critic—the monkey that sits on your shoulder and peers down on what you do. It’s your ego and the one that constantly corrects you and forces you to doubt yourself. It’s the perfectionist side that causes you to freeze like a deer in headlights.
There Are No Hard and Fast Rules for Writing
Work with the limitations of the day, but there are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some will say “write every day at the same time.” Some will say “make sure your desk is free from clutter.” Some will say “a messy desk is a mark of a creative mind.” Writing is amazing because there very few places where you can’t write. I have yet to think of a place where you can’t write—well, maybe…don’t write while you’re driving.
Talk To Other Writers
Chances are other writers feel exactly the same struggles. Find comfort in talking to them and rekindling the reasons you love writing.
Your narrative matters. Repeat: your narrative matters. Your unique perspective matters. What someone else thinks of your ability as a writer is none of your business. Write because your voice matters. Write because you have something to say. Write because although it may be hard work, you love it.
Thank you for joining us today, Heather! Check out Heather’s work at OscarAstoria.com.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
This week I’m thrilled to feature a guest post on writing by friend and fellow author, Diana Kirk. She is the author of Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy. Her smart, thought-provoking essays can be found in Nailed, Thought Catalog, and Five 2 One Lit Mag. She lives on the coast of Oregon with her husband and three boys where she trades real estate and stories at tiny coffee shops.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Finishing. The word itself and the act itself. To finish means you need to start and in between you need to work hard and persevere. Persevere is a word I’m thinking of tattooing on my wrist, but I’m also considering simply writing “Finished.”
Because I love projects that are finished projects. The feeling of completion is so satisfying to me that if it’s a success almost doesn’t matter. Every trip I’ve taken abroad has been a project, every business I’ve started, a project, my marriage, my kids, my writing…all projects with outcomes. Some obviously not so definable as raising a human and whether they are successful. I think if my kids are confident and laugh at themselves heartily, they will be successful adults. But when are you finished? I don’t know. I’m in the work hard and persevere section of parenting these days.
Children’s writer Margaret Dilloway shared a post this week on Facebook stating Meyers Briggs personality tests are bunk. My letters describe me to perfection. An ENTP is The Visionary, extraverted intuition with introverted thinking.
“ENTPs are fluent conversationalists, mentally quick, and enjoy verbal sparring with others. They love to debate issues, and may even switch sides sometimes just for the love of the debate. When they express their underlying principles, however, they may feel awkward and speak abruptly and intensely.”
The article might be correct about Meyers Briggs being bunk because The Visionary is not known for finishing. The Visionary is known for having ideas. Triangulating information into possibilities. My friends and family have all received these late-night texts from me…
“We should buy a sailboat to share. We’ll sail to the tip of Baja, you sail back.”
I can only imagine my cousin sitting on her couch, watching a vampire show and rolling her eyes at my weird texts rolling through.
Visionaries are not known for finishing. They’re delegators, they’re farmers planting their ideas in the minds of different people to see if they’ll sprout up or become something interesting. They’re not ones to finish a thing.
I have a lot more ideas than I actually follow through on. I guess you’d say that’s not finishing. I once started a business grey importing RVs to Canada. I only did it once then bailed from stress. I had a knitting business, I used to sell soup at campgrounds to American Snowbirds in Mexico, I’ve brokered real estate deals for percentages, pitched movie scripts to agents, tour guided through Detroit. I simply like doing stuff, trying to do stuff. Finding the interesting quadrants in life.
Which is why I’ve been thinking about the word Finished this week. The more I look at books from an author standpoint, after formatting a manuscript, editing, book covers, distribution, publicity…I see that really, a book Is a lot about finishing. It’s not always about the best writing, or the best cover or the best anything. It’s about finishing a damn project from inception to completion.
This entire idea came to me from a question posted on a writer’s forum I follow. A woman asked the question about writing her mother or her family in a memoir. How would they take it? How do writers do this? I wanted to answer her but I just couldn’t because what I’ve seen is that if you worry so early on in your project, whatever it is, if you worry about your friends and family, you’ll never finish a thing. Because after you write that beautiful piece you’re so proud of, you’ll submit it to reviewers and one of them will take offense. Then your editors will argue about the validity of a different part. Whether it should be put in your book. Then one of your reviewers for this golden book will not understand your book. They’ll tell you to rewrite sections you don’t want to re-write. Then publicists will take your finished book and twist it into something you don’t feel deep in your guts. But maybe you actually are the person they’re pitching. You tell yourself it’s just a part of who you are. They’ll sell you as something more interesting than you feel. Then strangers will read your book and some of them will not understand your chapter two. They’ll tweet about it and you’ll just sit there with a vodka tonic…not really worrying about your mom anymore. By the end, you’ll just need a mom.
So maybe “Finished” is a heavily undervalued and yet beautiful word. I’m obviously not finished with life so perhaps tattooing it onto my wrist isn’t the best idea but maybe…it is. Because the word isn’t weighed down with a numerical scale of success, it isn’t populated on Twitter, it doesn’t reek with anxiety. If you did the stuffs and you never gave up, and there’s a set moment in time of finishing, then you’ve succeeded. Maybe finished means success. Maybe it should be the sexiest word ever. If anything, it’s definitely a check mark in that life resume.
I finished a book.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017