I’ve been in a rut. Deep down a writing well, or ditch, of sorts. I’ve been here before, and I’m sure I’ll be here again. But I have forgotten how unsettling it is – to know you have words inside you, ready to be put down, and to not be able TO GET THEM OUT OF YOUR HEAD.
In part I blame my first line obsession. Actually it’s less an obsession I suppose, more a philosophy about how I write. In my experience, regardless of whether I’m working on a novel, or a magazine article, or a piece of corporate marketing for a website, until I get that first line down I am useless. Everything else I write sucks. Big time. So I meander along, writing bits here and there. All of it terrible, with no connectedness. I hate every word I put down, and no, I am not exaggerating. And inevitably, I begin to doubt I can actually write. In fact, I’m quite certain I can’t. Up to this point, it’s all been a fluke, I tell myself.
Talk about drama, right?
Because I can write (at least I’m pretty sure I can, most days). I even have an award saying so (shameless boastful moment – that National Magazine award nomination I wrote about? Well, I won. Which is super duper exciting, and as expected, has not changed my life one iota aside from being able to update my bio). Yet, as I sit with a blank page in front of me (or worse in some ways, pages filled with lifeless sentences), I’m sure this is the time when I will be discovered. That it’s all just an illusion.
So to get out of the current ditch I’ve done a few things. One, I’ve ranted about it to a critique partner, who has kindly listened to my bellyaching without once telling me to shut up and just get over it (Thank you, Rosey!). I declared I’m giving up fiction writing (of course I’m not, I love it too much even if it doesn’t always love me). I said I’m spending all summer reading; writing what I have to for work, but nothing else. I’ve outlined my frustrations in 140 characters more than once (sorry to my followers). I’m writing this blog post. And I pulled out one of my favourite books, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.
Bird by Bird is in one word, brilliant. If you are a writer, or aspire to be one, this is the book YOU MUST READ. I’ve read it before, but years ago and back when I only dreamed of getting published in magazines and my first novel was little more than 500 words in a word document on my laptop (that book, for the record, is now gathering dust on the proverbial shelf where first novels go to die). It didn’t mean to me back then what it does now. Now it’s like Anne Lamott is inside my brain. Writing down everything I’m thinking and feeling, to help me get out of my rut. Because once you see it so clearly stated in front of you, the angst and fear gets puts in its place.
One of the things she talks about in the book is to avoid focusing on the entire project. If you do, overwhelm will quickly set in and you’ll be paralyzed, fingers at the ready above your keyboard, quivering with the desire to write but waiting for your brain to deliver the words. So instead, she suggests you write “bird by bird”. She tells the story of how her brother had three months to write a school project on birds, but he procrastinated, so that the night before it was due he sat paralyzed, surrounded by papers, his bird books, and no idea how to get it done. Their father, a writer, told him to just take it bird by bird and to see what happens (he got it done). So simple; so effective.
When I get lost in my writing, sure it’s never going to become anything worthy with even the best word massaging skills, I remember to write “bird by bird” … and to be patient. Because I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again.
Thankfully, I’ve clambered out of the ditch — where it really sucks, for the record — and have managed to eke out 10,000 words and a solid outline on one project (that I’m L.O.V.I.N.G), and a few thousands words and an outline for another one I can’t wait to get to.
Bird by bird. Word by word. You get the idea.