Friday 7 September 2018

Writer's Block - the other Black Dog, by Dawn Finch

Nope.... I got nothing...

There, I said it, right there in the title those dreaded words – WRITER’S BLOCK. Two words that strike fear in the heart of writers, and all creative people.

There are actually some (lucky) people who still think this is a myth, but that’s because they have never had it. There is no way to predict when it will hit you, and as it strikes us all in different ways I’m afraid I can’t give you a heads-up about warning signs. There are no familiar or recognisable things like a metallic taste in the mouth or a sudden and inexplicable craving for marshmallows (although these two may be connected because I do eat too many marshmallows). I’m sure that others have written about it on here (Claire Fayers wrote an excellent piece about what to write when you're not writing, back in August, and you can read that here ) but I’m just crawling out of the other side of a particularly bad bout and thought I would share some useful things that might help. These things might not help, but at least you’re reading something and that is a start.

It’s only when I’m coming out of the other side of a bout of WB that I can use the magic of hindsight to look at what might have brought it on. In this case I was waiting for some very important paperwork to arrive and that had placed my in a kind of emotional limbo. I was dithering around the house and generally doing a half-arsed job with all sorts of other things, so that didn’t help. I was also feeling a bit of a dip medically with an ongoing condition. I’m a bit rubbish at taking care of myself (see my other blogs about being a crap boss) and hadn’t noticed that my attention had wavered and my sleep was messed up.

This all meant that I was sitting in front of a screen, or a notebook, and instead of adding I was taking away. I hated everything I’d ever written and kept deleting chunks. Thankfully I always save a previous copy just in case I have a flood of deletion, and so I could restore it when I eventually came up for air. I would get up, log on, open the file, and the staring began. Soon after this, the distraction arrived like a yapping dog. What was that email? Maybe if I just did some research? Was that the door? Oh, must put that washing on. Doesn’t that thing I recorded expire today?
You get the idea.

Then, I thought maybe if I did something physical that kept me away from my desk I’d be keen to get back to it. I’ve been working on the restoration of a Victorian desk, so I spent a week sanding, waxing and polishing it. That knackered my hands. I overdid it and spent a week in agony hardly able to lift a pencil, let alone grip it to write. Sadly I still didn’t feel as if I was brimming over with ideas.
I tried a few things that have worked in the past. I re-read some favourite inspirational books. I wrote haiku about my central characters. I took long walks in the Wild to clear my head.
None of this worked.

I posted in a writer’s group, and people came up with all sorts of brilliant ideas to help me. I share some of the tips here in case they help you. Wise words from talented writers should always be shared.
  • Chitra Soundar recommended a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
  • Penny Joelson suggested writing a letter to my main character expressing my worries about the book.
  • Nicola Morgan pointed out that if my deadline was too long, or non-specific, I might benefit from setting myself a tighter one. She also very wisely pointed out that I should stop trying and should “leave room for mental composting” (I love that phrase!)
  • Sue Reid and Cathy Cassidy suggested that I set it aside and give myself a guilt-free holiday from it all, and that I stop beating myself up about it.
  • Dianne Hofmeyr recommended two books - Saving the Cat by Blake Snyder and Writing the Break Out Novel by Donald Maass, and she also supported the idea of a break and taking these as holiday reading.
  • Gwen Grant came up with the idea of taking a personal object and focusing my writing on that one thing.
  • NM Browne also supported the idea of a break and advised to “forbid yourself from writing anything for a month.”
  • Steve Gladwin recommended a book too. He suggested Jenny Alexander’s Free Range Writing. He said the 20 min exercises might help.
  • Emma Pass said she often finds that writing a very “matter of fact” letter to herself can help.

I took all of these fantastic ideas and made a note of them (and tried most of them), but it occurred to me that I’m definitely not alone in this struggle and that writer’s block is an almost inevitable part of the writing process. I think it’s rather like a headache in that we all get them once in a while. Some suffer more than others, some get them all the time, and some very lucky people never get them at all. Like headaches we should, perhaps, see them as normal and not always fear that this is the End of Days.

I took the advice given, and stopped trying, and read some nice things, and wrote some letters, and gave myself permission to take a break. I stopped feeling guilty about not making stuff up for a while. I felt at ease with that, and stopped trying to ruin my hands working on other things. I made jam, and went to the library, and caught up with other work such as the huge pile of committee papers and library related documents that needed my attention. I read some books from the TBR pile. I went for long walks and actually looked at stuff and enjoyed the air rather than frowning my way up a hill and down the other side.

On one of my walks I noticed a place name. An obscure and strange name that only appeared on one sign. Puzzled, I tried to find out what it meant, and couldn’t track down the origin.
“That’s so odd,” I thought. “This would be the perfect place for someone to hide something….”
And I reached for the notebook in my pocket….

Dawn Finch is a children's writer, librarian and gifted procrastinator with a large collection of esoteric books and a well-worn pair of walking boots. She always carries a waterproof notebook in case she suddenly loses her writer's block while in the woods. She is often found up a hill with a sandwich.


Moira Butterfield said...

Well done, Dawn. A practical post and positive - With time and care of yourself you accessed your talent again.

Steve Gladwin said...

I'm really delighted to hear it worked out, Dawn and I'm glad I was able to help in a small way.

Rowena House said...

Not so much unhealthy writer's block, then, more a healthy writing break. Yup. That makes sense.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Glad to hear that you are writing again. I love the way you describe yourself as someone who is often found up a hill with a sandwich!

Chitra Soundar said...

It’s like love it always comes when you’re Not trying too hard