When words don’t come easily
Not long ago, my esteemed mentor Stella Harvey wrote in her blog that she was feeling like she was in a rut. She was showing up at her desk, but words did not come easily.
It’s a common experience that happens to writers at all stages of their career. We either bemoan it as “writer’s block” or push it out of our minds by pretending it doesn’t happen. This is understandable. Who wants to dwell on suffering? I know I hate when it happens to me and it happens to me with pretty much every single story I write. It is generally in the first draft stage while I’m trying to ferret out an engaging story, but it can show up with even more force in the revision stage. That is often worse because I know something is not right and I don’t yet know how to fix it.
Return to the story; that’s the whole point
What if we were to think of it a different way? Since it happens to me with every story, I have officially decided to call it not a problem, but a natural part of the process.
I’m Buddhist and meditate daily. Sometimes I try to focus on my breath for fifteen minutes. My mind rarely makes it through fifteen seconds. Each time I drift, I gently tell myself to come back and try some more. To me, waiting for the fullness of a story to arrive is exactly like returning to my breath. I need to come back and try some more.
I’ve been taught that knowing how to draw my attention back to my breath is the whole point of meditating. Here’s a revolutionary thought. What if the need to return to the story problem is the whole point of being a writer? What if all those torturous hours waiting are how stories are born? I have to admit. It seems to work this way for me.
Words may not appear on the page. That does not mean we aren’t working. To me there is a big difference between waiting for the fullness of a story to arrive and choosing to clean your toilet instead of staying at your desk. If we are at our desk trying, we are writing. When it’s ready, the story will arrive. The trick is to keep going back to your desk. It also helps to recognize that thinking is some of the hardest work we do as writers and it is not always immediately measured by words.
Translation: Be kind to yourself.
If we think of stories needing to ripen, or of us as writers needing to mindfully wait, there are other ways of passing our time than staring at a blank screen. I find it helps me a lot to research the subject of my story or dig into a really dense book on stories in general. My go-to source for stories in general is “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” by Christopher Booker. Often it opens my mind and I feel annoyed to discover the solution was always close at hand. This too may be part of the process.
It also helps me to read good writing by other people, or go for a walk in the woods, or make soup, or sing to myself in an empty house.
But mostly, my stories get written because I go back to my desk.
How do you work through those moments when the words do not come easily?