It can be easy to read someone else’s writing, be it a book, essay, or poem, and be blown away by their talent. It can be even easier to read that and think, Wow, I’ll never be that at ease with words. Why bother?
Lest you think that sitting and spewing forth words is easy, let me give you a gentle reminder that writing is work. You might have a phrase or sentence that you love and want to incorporate into a piece. You might sit down to write something particular, with an idea of the direction you’re going to take. You might have a fully conceptualized idea and think that it will take no time at all to get it down perfectly. Oh, friend. You are in for a wild ride.
Writing is almost never easy, and it often takes twists and turns you don’t expect. You might get into researching a topic that interests you, and find that your original thoughts are inaccurate or absurd when compared to the truth. You might start out working on a piece and watch before your eyes and fingers as it turns into something else completely. That perfect phrase might not even make it into the final draft, which is about an eight on the scale from disappointing to gut-wrenching. And that easy piece you’ve had in your mind for so long that it should take less than an hour to get down perfectly? Hahaha, it’s going to take you hours.
The adventure and enjoyability relies on your ability to be adaptable. Did your parody piece fall flat on its face? Is your poem coming to pieces in your hands the more you look at it? Did your essay take a left turn and never come back around to your original point and now you don’t really know what it’s about anymore?
It’s easy to think that since we control the words we write, that the piece that forms is also in our control. But the reality is that you have to make a blind investment in your work and trust your process. Get frustrated. Write nonsense. Get up and walk away for awhile. Start something new entirely. Abandon the piece for later. Talk your piece out loud and have someone transcribe what you say. Write from a photograph or another piece of media. Change your poem into a rant, or vice versa. Tried these methods and still unhappy with your results? Even if you take a cooling off period, the number one tip I have is to always, always return to the scene of the crime. It doesn’t have to be immediately. It doesn’t have to mean coming back with the same ideas or in the same headspace. But make sure you you return to the pieces you’ve taken a break from periodically, just to take the temperature, see if anything’s changed. But only take those prolonged breaks after trying these strategies.
Strategies to keep yourself writing:
- Change location- Sometimes a change in scenery will do you good. Are you inside? Go into a different room. Go outside. Move to the other end of the couch or table. Give yourself something new to look at when you’re frustrated or need to space out for a second.
- Change format- Are you writing on a laptop? Get out that paper and pen. Make it a fancy pen and a nice journal. Sometimes using a different set of tools helps jar something loose that is helpful in getting your creative spark back.
- Change topics- Is your super feminist rewrite of The Odyssey not working out? Find a new angle to approach your subject, or shelve it for the moment. It’s hard to gender-bend Aeneas when you have a completely different scene popping up in your head. Go write about your reading garden instead. The piece will still be there when you get back.
- Sit with your discomfort/identify the problem- Sometimes the only way out is through. If something about what you’re working on is bothering you, sit and stare at it until you’ve identified the problem. That’s half the battle. Read out loud to yourself, fill in any gaps that present themselves, or map out what you want the piece’s overarching narrative to look like, and figure out where you’ve strayed.
- Embrace the new direction- Sometimes the best of intentions aren’t getting the job done. If you feel like you’ve lost control and can’t bear to cut the passages that have led you astray from your original vision, lean into it. See where your new north is, and write the piece that desperately wants out instead of the vision you originally had in your head.
- Strip it down/build it up- If you don’t have a character sketch yet, make one. Distill your character or story down to its bare bones and see what you might be missing from makin those clear, and in control of your story. Are you missing a character’s main motivation? That’s important to story-telling.
- Make your characters jerks/put them in new situations- If your characters don’t seem real enough to jump off the page, or if you just don’t like them anymore, try making them total jerks. Have them make decisions you don’t like or agree with. Finding out how your characters would react to situations you wouldn’t typically write about can be helpful in making them more life-like. Drop them into a completely different world, if need be. How would your villain fare in Kings Landing? How far would your sidekick get in the Hunger Games?
- Make it absurd/make it true- Suspend the laws of gravity in your created world. Make everyone wake up one morning speaking Pig Latin. Remove fire or sugar from your setting (keep coffee). Conversely, abandon all the research you’ve tried to do on street fighting and make your character a bookworm or a lifeguard instead. Something you know well enough to write more easily about without needing to fact-check every five seconds.
- Focus on one passage- Find the one part of your story where you feel as though you lost your direction, your voice, or your control. Find the passage that most clearly says what you want this piece to be. Find the passage that’s the funniest. Focus on that, and expand from there as though it’s your new beginning or furthest checkpoint.
- Fuel up/get a snack- Let’s be honest— are you hangry? Get up and make yourself something to eat. We haven’t covered bookish snacks yet, but just you wait. Foodstuffs are coming. Fuel up, drink a glass of water (you’re probably dehydrated), brew a new pot of coffee or cup of tea. Don’t you feel better now? Try feeding your characters, too. This doesn’t even need to be literal (literary) food! Give one character a victory, or the next piece of what is motivating them. Giving your piece a second wind can have that effect on you, too.
What do you typically do when you’ve written yourself into a corner or feel stuck? Which of these strategies looks like it would be the most helpful?
Lit & Love,