Getting stuck is the process

I wish I could remember who said those words because they probably said a lot of other smart things I–and you–would like to hear. But I don’t, so the rest is me.

Getting stuck is the process. It is the inhale that makes possible the exhale. Without getting stuck, there would be no pause for reflection, no gathering of forces, no oxygen.

I will get stuck hundreds, thousands, millions (?) of times in my writing life. You will get stuck hundreds, thousands, millions (?) of times in your writing life. It doesn’t mean we like it. If you’re American, like me, our culture doesn’t like sleep, rest, reflection–any lapse in productivity and busyness, any step away from the consumer chain of capitalism. And apart from cultural messages, it is often frustrating–I have a story I want to tell and something is in the way. Often I am in the way. I want to go, be, do–not rest. Not wait. Not feel passive. We want control, but 90% of creativity happens outside our control, in the subconscious.

Getting stuck is productive.

It is a chance for our subconscious to mull things over. It is our subconscious saying, Wait a bit, I think I know a way to make this even cooler. To say, We’re working on the wrong book, poem, painting, dance, problem, project or We’re looking at this the wrong way or We’ve gone down the wrong road. It’s a chance for our subconscious to connect things our conscious brain would never connect. It’s a request for air, food for the creative process, material to incorporate, act against, emulate, inspire. It is a demand to stop, to grieve, to feel, to heal. It is the inhale.

So why am I writing about how to get out of writer’s block if it’s so natural and healthy, you might ask? for one thing I’m impatient–I want to get back to my writing as much as anyone. I want the high of creating and I want the soothing effects of an activity that helps me cope with my life, both in keeping me on an even keel mentally and emotionally and helps me make sense of the chaos of living. For another–the subconscious is subconscious. It is out of our awareness. It sends us messages in bottles that could toss up in years (not necessarily a bad thing) or that never arrive at all (I admit I don’t like that idea at all). Methods for overcoming writer’s block are a way to bring our subconscious creative realizations to the surface of our mind where we can do something with them, write them down, shape them, craft them and use them as a springboard deeper into our creative project.

I get stuck a lot. Between 1992 and 1999 I didn’t write at all, besides term papers, and I didn’t’ even miss it–not consciously anyway. I made a lot of dubious choices in that period, but hey I was young, I was probably going to make them whether I was writing or not. 2010 was a terrible year. Both my remaining grandparents died, my marriage was on the rocks for the first time, and we had that scourge of NYC living that I won’t mention by name because people who’ve experienced it cry and break out in spontaneous itchy welts. Id din’t write anything for six months. I didn’t write fiction for another six months.
Those are the big blocks in my life. There have been shorter blocks of months, days, hours or only minutes, and each time I’ve felt like I would never write again, never be a writer again. Writer’s block has often felt like the endless abyss of grief. It has also felt like beating my head against a wall, like the itch of a mosquito bite, or an absence. An absence of drive, an absence of creativity, an absence of inspiration, an absence in belief in myself, of ideas, of will, of clarity.

But if writer’s block–the power of the inhale–is part of the process, we all need some way to harness it, to manipulate it, to end it momentarily, to bring the subconsciousness’ creativity to the surface of our minds and onto the page. To exhale.

Over the years I’ve discovered a hell of a lot of methods to do so, adapted them, and created my own. I use at least one of these every day–and on some days I riffle through a dozen, looking for the one that will work, today, in this moment, in this inhale.
So here they are, the numerous weird, profound and fun thins I do to get myself creating again.

Check your health

I’m still writing about how to beat writer’s block, but since my journey took a weird detour, that’s where we’re going this week.

This isn’t a post about mental health, though I do talk about depression a bit; this is a post about body health and how it influences everything.

For the last month and a half, I thought I was depressed. Nothing was helping, not observing my thoughts and using cognitive behavioral techniques, seeing my therapist, spending times with friends, listening to happy music or exercising. Worse, none of my writer tricks that I’ve been talking about were working either and I COULDN’T WRITE. Which of course just made me feel more depressed and useless since writing is usually a way to keep me mentally healthy. I haven’t written fiction in over a month now. It’s been terrible and I’ve been blaming myself. (Yeah, I know, not helpful and not the only wall I’ve been beating my head against.)

It’s been terrible.

And apart from that, I was sick. Stomach problems are the worst (ok, everything is the worst when you are having it). (Side rant about food poisoning: it is the common cold of the tropics. I’ve had two colds since I moved to Thailand, but I had food poisoning four times in the first two years.)

So I went to the doctor. Go, me! I hate going to the doctor. She said, You have the same thing you had last year, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). I didn’t believe her, it didn’t feel the same, but I thought it was worth doing the breath test. She told me I had to wait a week, for certain medications to clear out of my system, and during that week I went on a restricted diet and felt a lot better, though not perfect and I was like, “Hot damn, the doctor is right, I have SIBO.”

So I was excited to do the breath test because ANTIBIOTICS are a fucking miracle, in spite of the test itself, which involves eating white food the day before (boiled chicken, fish or eggs and white rice with no seasoning besides salt and pepper) and then fasting 12 hours before the test and the 4 hours while the test is administered. You breathe into a tube attached to a plastic envelope every 20 minutes. It’s kind of cool, like a mobile pulmonary test.

Also, Thailand is amazing, they give you the results right away. But those results said: No SIBO. Devastation. Close to actual tears in the doctor’s office since no diagnosis means no treatment.

But I went home and my body was telling me, This is SIBO. I looked at my journals from last year, and my symptoms were the same. So I texted my awesome nutritionist from last year and told her what was going on. And she said, Hey! Fun fact, a lot of doctors think there are only two kinds of SIBO (based on the type of bacteria you have too much of) but now researchers think there is a third kind which doesn’t show up on the test and there’s no test for it. You might have hydrogen sulphide dominant SIBO. And then she went on vacation. And my doctor basically told me she didn’t believe in three kinds of SIBO, and I started feeling worse and worse and and there was a lot of lag time in there and I kept eating the regular SIBO diet because it had helped before. Meanwhile, don’t forget, I’m so depressed that I didn’t write an April newsletter, I haven’t blogged for more than a month on one blog and a month on this one and still no fiction. Wednesday night I felt so bad I was almost crying but I knew I had an appointment with my nutritionist on Thursday and I was really hoping she could help me again like she did before.

So we talk, and she says, let’s try the low-sulfur diet and I’m like, Why didn’t you tell me this before you went on vacation cause I’ve felt like I’ve been carrying a balloon in my belly and that balloon is made of pain. But I’m desperate so I go on a low sulfur diet and the first two days are awesome. My stomach stops hurting for the first time in weeks, I wake up with energy and not depressed. Here I was thinking I was depressed because I was sick, as a kind of side effect, but this felt like depression as a symptom. But it turns out that along with all the digestive problems of HS SIBO, brain fog and fatigue and trouble remembering things are legit symptoms.

I’m not better yet, because there are some bureaucratic complications,(and more tests, including the breath test AGAIN), but the low sulfur diet (with some further restrictions, like no vegetables–I was a vegetarian for 20 years!) is helping. I feel much better than even a few weeks ago, and for the last few days I have tentatively put down a few words of fiction in the morning.

It turns out the writer’s block was depression and the depression was a symptom of being sick.

It’s time to stop resisting other things in my life

I have no idea if this is a problem that other people have, but it’s a big problem for me. I tend to let things pile up and then I put my head in the sand like a mule and refuse to look at or think about the things I don’t want to do. (Yes I know it’s supposed to be, what…an ostrich? But there is a particularly mulish quality to my refusal to face up to what I have to do and it’s like burying my head in the sand at the same time. I stand by my mixed metaphor.)

Right now I’m resisting:

Going to the doctor. I have resisted this for so long I now have to go to three different doctors (I hate going to the doctor at the best of times. Going to the doctor in a totally different culture is really hard and confusing and all my expectations get jerked around, every time. There are so many cultural expectations wrapped up in medical care.)

Making a decision about going home to see my family

Making a decision about going on vacation instead of/in addition to/taking away time from seeing my family

Standing up for what I need (this last is making me cranky as it feels like everyone else’s needs are being prioritized over mine which duh they are because no one else knows what I need because I just keep saying yes to everyone else’s priorities–this is also how I have to go to so many doctors because everyone else kept taking time from work and so I felt like I couldn’t.)

The thing is, when I have this resistance to fixing the problems in my life it spills over into writing. It just blocks up the flow of everything: problem solving, creativity, emotion, thought and writing doesn’t happen without those things. As soon as I start stuff moving, really moving, in these other areas of my life, then probably writing will free itself up again too.

Just to clarify, this isn’t just procrastination. It’s procrastination buried under a la la la if I put my hands over my eyes and ears I can’t hear you, see you, problems, attitude and has a lot to do with me feeling overwhelmed and to not paying enough attention to my needs/wants.

Ok, is it just me or does this happen to anyone else?

Status: I have realized I don’t know what the villain is doing but I made some progress on the B plot involving family members. A little anyway.

Read

Read something you love or something that will help you.

Ok, I know some of you are protesting, “But, Nicole, I will be influenced and that will be terrible!”

I think the myth of influence being bad is as pernicious and false as the myth of American individualism (after four years of living abroad I have a RANT about this but that’s a whole side rant about how we believe that’s how we live our lives but is not the truth of how we live our lives).

But let’s talk about influence for a moment. Influence is everywhere. You cannot avoid influence. Other words for influence are preference, taste, canon, learning. There would be no The Lord of the Rings without the Völsunga saga. There would be no Sword of Shannara without The Lord of the Rings. There would be no The Deed of Paksenarrion without either or all of the other books influenced by The Lord of the Rings that made Elizabeth Moon decide she needed epic fantasy to do something different than what was influencing her. Everything is in conversation with what has come before.

Influence is where the best art comes from, plus it’s unavoidable so I wish we would all just stop trying to avoid it and embrace it. Rant mostly over.

But, you might be saying, what about voice? You might be saying, I’m a new writer and I don’t know what my voice is yet. What if my book sounds like Ursula Le Guin or Alistair Reynolds or whoever it is that I love so much?

First of all, have you ever seen art students copying the masters in an art museum? Imitation is a great way to learn the skills you want.

Second, if you did manage to sound like Ursula Le Guin, I would probably read everything you wrote because I LOVE Ursula Le Guin and wish there was more of her fiction in the world. But get over yourself. You will never sound like Ursula Le Guin or Alistair Reynolds because you are not them. You don’t have their life experiences or writing history and even if you replicated their writing styles you still wouldn’t sound like them because the things that interest you cannot be the exact same things that interested anyone else. Also, if you’re a new writer you are not that good yet, so stop worrying. And finally, most people are not that good a mimic.

Third, that’s what revision and beta readers are for. When you are done writing your draft, the next step is revision and if you are afraid you copied someone, then you revise all those parts so that you haven’t. Or you give it to trusted readers and tell them, I’m afraid I copied Stephanie Meyer, can you help me? (Also congratulations might be in order because maybe that means you are the next E.L. James.)

(Sorry, I’m cranky today. Because I’m actually on next week’s trick, write something else, in conjunction with this week’s trick, so I’m writing this blog post instead of the fiction I hoped I would be writing. I’m sad and slightly depressed because of some things happening in my life and I find it very hard to write fiction in that state, even though paradoxically, writing fiction would probably help me to get out of it.)

Ok, back to reading something you love or something that helps you because we’re trying to bust writer’s block here. This can take a lot of forms.

Immerse yourself in someone else’s writing and just enjoy it. Let it be a reminder that it can be done and of why you want to do it. Let the thrill of reading wake up the thrill of writing inside you.

Go to other authors for technique and inspiration. Maybe you need to look at how other authors end their chapters or interweave character action with dialogue. Pick up a book by someone you admire and examine how they did the thing you’re having trouble doing. I love Heather Seller’s advice in Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams. She says to have six wise guides for the book you are working on. From memory, I think she says have three fiction books that are like the book you want to write and three non-fiction books that you find helpful and inspiring, but I think any combination of fiction and non-fiction works. These are books that are like the book you want to write, in genre, tone, theme, style, etc., or craft books that will help you get there.

Right now, my books are the Phryne Fisher mysteries by Kerry Greenwood (totally cheating, there are like 20 books in the series), The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells, Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett, Fearless Creating: A Step-by-Step Guide To Starting and Completing Your Work of Art by Eric Maisel, and What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro.

Oh, you know what? Light bulb moment: Those are the wise guides for the book in revision, not the guides for the novella I’m currently working on. That might be part of my problem, right there. I’m a pantster, so it helps immeasurably to have the shape of an book I have read in mind when shaping my own.

Read to learn craft or for motivation. I need to add a book on how to write mysteries to my six guides, but I haven’t found one that really works for me yet. Instead I’m listening to back episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast on character to help me figure out how to handle all those characters who just might be the murder suspect and so need page time in a way that doesn’t happen in other genres. I read parts of Fearless Creating when I need to be reminded that fear, or as Eric Maisel calls it, anxiety, is part of the process of creativity. And I’m reading What Every Body is Saying is because my main character is supposed to be good at reading body language and I’m certainly not.

That’s it for this week.

I’ll get back to you about the wise guides I choose for my novella. I also thought I’d add a progress update since I’m using these techniques as I write about them to wrestle with my own writer’s block.

Today: blog post written in lieu of fiction; fiction wincingly glanced at and a bit of exposition for copied in from one book to another.

Write just one sentence

This is really good when I’m having trouble getting started for the day or when I don’t know what’s next or when resistance has set in hard and I’ll do anything as long as it isn’t writing.

I promise myself “You just have to write one sentence. That’s it. You don’t have to stick with it, you don’t have to wrack your brains over this, just write one sentence and you’ve done your writing for the day, and you’re done, without feeling guilty about not writing.”
And then one of two things will happen.

I will write one sentence and I have done something. I have accomplished writing. I have one more sentence than I did when I woke up. I promise myself I will write one more sentence tomorrow and that’s it.

Or, I will write a lot more than one sentence because once I’m in front of the computer and I’ve broken the resistance by convincing myself I’m not going to do very much at all, it’s not worth resisting because I’m not really going to write, I’m just going to write one tiny little sentence, the inertia of writing takes over and I write. Because that one sentence spawns another sentence and another and before I know it I’ve written five sentences or one hundred sentences.

It’s a win-win situation because the writing advances one way or another.

The writing blahs

I’m in that place where I’m starting to get feedback on the novel I sent to beta readers but not all of it so I can’t start fixing the problems and it gives me the writer blahs. You know, where you feel like you can’t do anything right and will never be able to fix the novel, the story, the blog post, so why even try? That’s where I am and it’s terrible.

But…

I have some methods to trick myself out of this feeling and the one I’m resorting to today (and probably the rest of the week) is index cards that I’ve written affirmations, quotes, and things I’ve learned and want to remember. I have a stack of about 50 that I’ve compiled over the last 10 years and I read them to myself (sometimes more than once, often out loud). This way, past me, who was in a better place, has a chance to boost my mood, remind me of how ridiculously stubborn I am, or kick me in the butt. Here are a few examples that have helped today:

Not writing is not an option.

When I feel stuck what am I telling myself?

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing —Henry Ford

Failure is part of the game. Get up and try again —Barbara Stanley

Writers steer by wonder desire — Heather Sellers

I am tenacious in achieving my goals.

As long as I’m facing the right direction it doesn’t matter the size of my steps —Erica Jong

How does one become a butterfly? You must want to fly so much that you’re willing to give up being a caterpillar —Trina Paulus

Having a nemesis

Or

Comparisonitis

And Writer’s block

I don’t have a nemesis. I do have writer’s block regularly and I have a whole introductory post about why I want to post regularly about getting out of writer’s block, but I had a bad case of it this week and didn’t actually finish that introductory post. But here I am, writing, so I’m out of it again (tentatively), and I need to write about having a nemesis.

There’s this person. Let’s call them Pollyanna (why I don’t agree with Pollyanna’s bad reputation is another post, completely outside the scope of this one, and let’s stick with her reputation as someone who is unwarrantedly optimistic). Pollyanna is in one of the online author groups I’m in. They post a lot (I never post). They ask for advice (I’m so bad at asking for advice in public. One on one is ok.). They are very determined, or at least appear so (my determination wavers like my short-lived experiments with playing the violin).

Today, Pollyanna posted that they had found the answer. I had already answered this question, several months ago, and read Pollyanna’s book, which was available to purchase. I gave Pollyanna some additional unsolicited feedback (sometimes I can’t help myself. I don’t know if this is righteousness or an overdeveloped need to help other people.) to the effect that the question they were asking wasn’t their problem. Their problem was they needed to work on the craft of writing. (The writing was very bad. I know I’m a snob about writing, but really, it was. Very. Bad.)

Pollyanna did not listen to my advice. That’s ok, advice is like birdseed. Some actually gets eaten by birds and that’s great. Some gets eaten by squirrels and hey, that’s ok. Some dies (sorry, birdseed) and some grows into weeds (I don’t actually know if that’s true, don’t yell at me if birdseed doesn’t become weeds, I like the idea and I like weeds. No, I don’t have a lawn, but if I did it would be weeds so insects and butterflies could live in it.). Anyway, never mind about the birdseed. Back to today.

Lots of people were helpful and supportive in the online group. It’s a great group. Pollyanna answered some follow-up questions. I read them (masochism isn’t pretty). I learned that Pollyanna had published several more books (I haven’t) and was advertising them (I’m scared of advertising and have talked myself out of it until I have more books) and SELLING 1-5 of these terribly written books per day (I am not selling that many books a day). And I realized something. The difference between me and Pollyanna was that they were still going, full steam ahead, and I had gotten stuck. I hate being stuck.

I also kind of hate Pollyanna and their unwarranted optimism and confidence all out of proportion to their ability. And competitiveness (I am very competitive) and jealousy (I swear I’m not really a terrible person but being a writer means wearing your insides as your outsides and that’s why it’s so damn hard sometimes) and comparisonitis (I CAN do what Pollyanna is doing, I’m just not doing it and that’s why more people are reading their terrible books than are reading my wonderful books, I just have to write them) kicked me in the competition organ (I think mine is at the base of my throat), so, kicked me in the throat and here I am. Writing. Thank god and Pollyanna. My nemesis. Today.

 

I’m giving myself until Tuesday to write fiction because post-novel funk is a real thing and I’m going to Hong Kong this weekend for Melon 2019, Aliens on the Galactic Silk Road, and how COOL is that!? It’s also my first real writer’s event since I moved to Bangkok almost four years ago.

Because accountability is also important in fighting writer’s block, here are the other things that got me to this point today and that I will write about: morning pages, cognitive behavioral therapy tools, community, whining, acknowledging post-novel funk and inspirational index cards.