Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing

One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck.  He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable.  Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.

Suddenly, he couldn't write.  No matter what he did.  He was even finishing up an online class and had three more weeks of feedback available from other writers he really liked and trusted.  He just stopped.

He emailed me because, in the past, we'd worked together and he knew I understood the intensity of his inner critic.  He got through its negativity with small, steady steps, like weekly postings to this online class.  Hiring the editor was a huge leap that his IC didn't like.  Not one bit.  It stepped up its campaign to discredit his writing and stop him from taking any more risks.

Once a writer gets in this kind of internal quagmire, it can take some work to get out.  But it can be done. 

We brainstormed a list of activities that might both (1) calm the inner critic and (2) get him interested in writing again.  Some of them are my suggestions, culled from years of getting out of my own quagmires and helping others do the same. 

I asked him to try a week of these tasks, spending time on one every day.  Some would work, some were just designed to relax him and distract him from worrying about not writing.  But some would begin to let that creativity bubble up again.

Here's the program we agreed on:

Day 1:  Read aloud for 20 minutes from somebody else's writing (published) that you love.  The reading aloud triggers a certain image-based part of the brain that bypasses the inner critic. 

Day 2:  Make
a list of ideas you'd like to try in your own writing.
Day 3:  Take a walk with your phone or a recording device and record ideas as you walk.   
Day 4:  Do "morning pages" first thing when you wake up (three pages of journaling without editing---based on Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way) to dump the worry onto the page.

Day 5:  Take one page of your own writing and read it aloud.  Using a highlighter, mark anything you love (he surprised himself by finding quite a bit).

Day 6:  Check in with a supportive community--his writing class--and make a commitment to post two new pages in two days.  If he wasn't in a class, I'd ask him to find a writing buddy to send work to.

Day 7:  Write one paragraph about what he might cover in these two pages.  Expand it to one page, then two pages.  SFD (shitty first draft) is fine.

I told him to email me after day 7 and report in.  He'd been moderately successful, able to follow the program except for day 3 (he hates to walk).  I asked him what he noticed by day 7.

"I was surprised at how totally OK my writing looked to me--it was a lot better than I thought on day 1," he said.  "I guess I'd put a spin on it, because of being ashamed that the editor found that weakness." 

I told him most writers can have this reaction.  It helps if the editor (or coach) is available for some revision work, so the process doesn't just end with "what's wrong."  Many are.  His wasn't, but he learned from that too.

I checked in with him last week and he was finishing up his class.  "I got some great feedback on my final posts," he said, "and I can't wait to work on the book again."

It's not unusual to get stuck when writing a book, or to have a raging inner critic appear when you take a big risk.  Knowing what to do about it makes all the difference. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this seven-day program, if you wish.  Even if you're not stuck, you might find some great benefits.

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