Friday, October 5, 2012

Staying in the Room with the Writing--How to Keep Yourself from Getting Blocked, Distracted, or Stopping Altogether

So many writers come to writing with a deep love for books.  They feel that love for books will make them able to write--almost magically.  But then they learn how much work it takes to become a writer, to develop the skills and hone the actual process of writing.

Occasionally, this love for reading grows into a natural love for the writing process.  On good days, I am swept away by putting words on the page, dreaming up cool ideas, and figuring out ways to touch a reader's heart and mind.  It's the best job in the world.

Other days, I sweat it.  I am distracted too easily.  I feel stupid as I write, the words are not what I am seeing inside.  I give up at the first phone call, email ping, or view of the overflowing laundry basket. 

So, we all, eventually, have to discover what keeps us "in the room" with our writing, as short-story writer Ron Carlson calls it.  Why do we stop, when we stop--and what can we do about it?  

What Happens When We Start Writing, then Stop? 
I often get an idea, start writing, then find myself pulled away.  It can be mundane distractions like how badly the rug needs vacuuming or the email messages piling up.  It can be non-physical hunger, too--a yearning for something to dull the edge I'm walking along as I write.  That's usually when I think of a nice cup of tea.  It could even be someone else's story--maybe that Netflix movie that we left unfinished last night.

The stopping point can come after a particularly good page, paragraph, even sentence.  I stop to think about it and begin to leave the "room" of the writing.   

It happens almost every writing session.  So I don't think it's unusual or bad.  It's training me to note my particular writing process--how do I dive into the dream and awaken from it, then have the discipline to submerge again?   

Sometimes it's fear.  I'm writing something particularly edgy and I get lost in it.  I actually feel emotional as I write, and I get afraid of being that lost in a non-real world.  Will I be able to function when I come out of it?  Better exit now, and get ready to be wife/mother/businessperson/whatever.  Writing can be exhilarating and deeply disturbing, especially to those of us who keep track of multiple lives (kids, spouse, coworkers, staff, students).  Who can reasonably choose the dream of writing over the responsibilities of "real life"?

But honestly, those responsibilities aren't always pulling on us--not really.   We are bringing them in to the writing process as a safety net, a way to get free of the dream.   
Don't confuse this with writer's block.  It is the polar opposite of writer's block--you are involved so much with your writing that it scares you.  Being blocked can come as a result, if you don't get back into the "room" within a short time.   Some professionals say three days is the max.

Some say a few minutes.  Ron Carlson is one of those.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story

In the midst of my summer doldrums--revision on Act 2 of my novel was moving forward with the speed of a snail--I got a copy of a little book called Ron Carlson Writes a Story.  It's just over a hundred pages, but I got something from every one.  Carlson has long been one of my favorite short story writers--Booklist calls him "a master of the short story" and he's been published in The New Yorker, QG, and other publications. 

Reading this little book is like having a chair in Carlson's writing room--but, even better, having a glimpse into his creative brain. 

He starts the book with a chapter on how an idea comes to him.  He speaks eloquently of how much we writers must trust our particular process of finding a story--no matter what genre we're writing in--and how discovery is such an important part of that process.

In the beginning of his career, he says he mistook the skill of reading fiction for that of writing fiction.  They are not the same, he discovered.  He was a good reader, a good analyst of what made stories work--but this skill didn't help him when it came to writing. 

Reading and writing are "related in important ways," he says, "but not as activities.  You have to do one in order to do the other (guess which?), and they meet in the book, that rare and beautiful object, but they are not conducted with the same posture or instruments."

So there's our first myth shattered.  We read and pause in our reading to reflect--this is natural.  But if we write, then pause in our writing to reflect, we realize all the scary things I listed above:  our "real" lives are falling apart while we write, our writing is all-consuming, we are losing ourselves in it.  Reading and writing do not have the same rhythm.  "One is reactive and the other creative," Carlson says. 

How can we train ourselves out of reactivity with our writing, and into creativity?

Writing toward an Image, Starting with an Idea
Many writers start with an image, an idea, that they write toward. Carlson's image was the day he dropped a mattress from the back of a truck he was driving.  This was the beginnings of his story.  We get story ideas from experiences like this, real life experiences.  We also get them from newspaper articles and things we overhear.  An artist friend once told me a story about jackrabbits dancing in the moonlight when she was camping, and this became an ending scene for my novel, Qualities of Light.

What are your story ideas, chapter ideas, scene ideas?  Make a list.  Keep the list going all the time you're writing--this always gives you a wealth of ideas to go back to when you begin to leave the "room" of the writing.  In Your Book Starts Here, I call this the "Brainstorming List of Islands."

Sometimes ideas come from big questions.  Carlson talks about a story that evolved from his question about the government giving aircraft carriers to single-parent families.  Odd, but intriguing enough to launch his story "On the U.S.S. Fortitude." 

Where do you write toward?

Staying Alert to Possibilities--The Process of Writing a Story
Some writers enjoy having their stories mapped out ahead of time.  I agree--to an extent. 

Storyboarding is very useful as a brainstorming tool when you are tackling a huge project, like a book versus a short story or essay.  Storyboards help me keep track of the larger map of the book.  And I also think chapters and scenes and "islands" (snippets) of writing can be more fun if there's an idea list to follow, like the Brainstorming List above.

But it's very pleasurable, once your list or storyboard are in place, to let the writing process become like a dog following a scent.  You begin writing on one of your ideas or images, and you follow your instincts.  Where could this go?  You may be writing about something you experienced already or about a factual event.  But pretend you are looking at it through a camera lens.  You can rotate that lens to see in any direction--zoom in or out.

 What haven't you noticed before?  What new images could be followed?

An example:  Writing teacher Julie Schumacher once presented the image of an elderly woman coming downstairs on the morning of a funeral, her cardigan sweater buttoned wrong.  That image is poignant; ordinary because it happens pretty often when we are askew with our lives, but important on that morning because it shows the old woman's grief.  Where would that image lead, if you were writing it?  Would someone come up and rebutton the sweater--and what would that mean in the scene that followed?  Or would the narrator acknowledge it and bring the woman a cup of tea, sit with her silently, listening to birds outside?

What if you embraced the idea that your creative self knows more than your logical mind?  What if your heart has secrets you don't recall when you begin writing a scene?  This can be wonderful.  "Writing is a way of touching, tapping into the heart and finally locating that knowledge, ending up with more resources than we started out with," Carlson says about this process. 

Writers who have published really only have one advantage over new writers:  they are OK with this "not knowing."  They are "willing to be lost," as Carlson says. 

Getting Lost--And What We Do about It
Here's the point of this article.  When we write, we are going to travel unknown territory.  We are bound to get lost as we lose what we know and become open to other ways of viewing the experience we're writing about.

What do we do when we get lost?

Most newer writers--and many old pros too--will stop.  They will take a break.  They will follow the siren call of coffee or television or a nap or doing laundry or checking email.  They may come back to the page, but over 50 percent of us don't, once we've broken away.  Sometimes, we come back after a day or so, or week or month.  But the thread we were following is hard to rediscover.  We have to go through the process of getting lost, all over again.

"The most important thing a writer can do after completing a sentence is to stay in the room," Carlson says, and this is why his book meant so much to me.  "The great temptation is to leave the room to celebrate the completion of the sentence or to go out in the den where the television lies like a dormant monster and rest up for a few days for the next sentences or to go wander the seductive possibilities of the kitchen."

Here's the quote I wrote out and pasted over my computer, and what I want to leave you with.  Ron Carlson said it so well:

"The writer is the person who stays in the room."

Carlson's book is all about how to do that.  If you pick up a copy, you may well use it as I did in those doldrum months:  each morning turn to a couple of pages about staying in the room, then begin to write. 

I kept the book alongside my writing table so I could see it first if I began to want to celebrate my sentences.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  In your writing notebook, begin a list of pos­sible topics you could write about—what could become a scene, section, or small moment in your book?  Each week, add three items every day.
2.  Allow yourself to include things that don’t seem to fit, like a color, image, snapshot memo­ry, dream, desire, smell, favorite meal. Use your own special shorthand and descriptions to jot these ideas down. Choose image-rich words, if you can, so your imagination will be triggered when you read them. The most successful brain­storming lists immediately put the writer into a scene full of senses.
3.  Each time you sit down to write, choose one of these—whichever jumps out at you—as the subject of your fresh writing.


  1. Mary, thank you for introducing me to Ron Carlson. I ordered the book and it made me want to hear his voice. Yesterday I finished listening to him read on audiobook his 2007 novel "Five Skies". It's beyond exquisite. I can't get over it. He's my latest hero and I his newest groupie... This sparse sentence, for example, about a character agonizing over a Should I/Shouldn't I question: "He felt the decision turn in him and settle" - (as a dog on its bed would) Love it...

  2. Hi Mary,

    I don't know if there is a way to do this, but could there be a prompt to print your latest posting only? I often want to print what you've sent but not everything that came before; now I just copy the individual post and paste into Word.

    I enjoy your posts and read them faithfully. Thanks for keeping this up!

    Cherryl Jensen

  3. Mary, thanks for posting! Love that quote from Carlson. I'll have to search out that novel.


  4. Charryl,

    You can get an emailed version of this post each week, then print from your email. Let me know if you'd prefer that.

    Otherwise, I think you can double click on the title and the post comes up on its own page. Try that . . .

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Mary Collins -- I agree -- that's an exquisite quote from Ron Carlson. It's twisting and turning in my head.

    Thank you, Mary Carroll Moore, for this post and these ideas, particularly the thought that wanting to walk out of the room isn't being blocked, but being vulnerable. I often get so antsy when I write. Now I can reframe the feeling into a positive push rather than a negative pull.

    You're a gem, Mary!! Thanks!

  6. Thanks, Mary, for the great motivation you've given me in this entry! I mentioned your post in my latest at In Black and White: Cross-Cultural Genealogy.

  7. I'm working on my first novel, and your blog--specifically the last two posts and the Kenneth Atchity book rec--has been the most help of all the myriad helps out there in blogland/cyberspace. Just wanted to say thank you. I don't live anywhere near you, but I hope to make your acquaintance someday so that I may thank you in person.

  8. Wow, Sara, thanks! Made my day. I appreciate your visit. Mary