Wednesday, November 20, 2019

When Absence Makes the Writing Heart Grow Fonder

Let’s face it. We’re busy people, with lives, loves, problems, any or all of which can keep us from writing. So how does one get back into what iconic Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor called the habit of writing? And might what we learned in the meantime even inspire us?

Whether you step away from writing for moments or decades, it can be tough to get your head back in the game. And the mind is where the proverbial rubber typically meets the road. In reality, it’s easier to leave off writing than stick with it. People do have lives, after all, families, pets, doctor appointments. We all get hungry, tired, bored, distracted. We have jobs, needs. And sometimes what we need is a break. Even when we don’t need one, we want one.

That said, I don’t necessarily believe in writer’s block, as people usually mean it: “I sat down to write and couldn’t.” If you sit down and grouse about why you can’t write, you’re cured. But you may not be cured of what many really mean by writer’s block: “I can’t write what I want, how I want.”

Another view of writer’s block is the mental jam-up that occurs when your mind churns out reason after reason not to sit down and just do it, or to stop doing it because it’s too hard. You don’t have time. Your writing is bad. You haven’t had an original idea in recent history. Your work will never go anywhere; neither will you as a writer. Even if you do write, by the time you’re good at it, everyone will have beaten you to the publisher, possibly with your very own idea. With internal diatribe like this, who could turn out another word, let alone one anyone would read?

While we agree that the return to writing isn’t easy, it is straightforward: Write anyway. No time? Write anyway, even a few notes to start. Bad writing? Write anyway. The more you write, the better you’ll become. No originality? Write anyway and revise what you write. Tired, no prospects for your work? Write anyway. You’re likely to fall back in love with it and continue. For this, the French have a saying: “Eating builds appetite.” So, too, with writing, and once you finish a piece, you can seek a home for it. From blogs to podcasts, there are more venues now than ever, and they need content, thus writers.

Even as I say this, sometimes I’m still stuck for a way to start writing. At such times, I use two basic techniques. If I’ve already written something, I edit it. If I’m trying to write something new, I write down my ideas and plans. Then I revise what I’ve written until it’s as clear as I can get it at that time. With the first method, the result is a more polished piece. With the second, I have an outline, which I can divide into sections and revise until they sound more and more like the actual piece I want to write.

As an example, I had an idea for a novel that I thought might work as a political thriller. I love this genre in film because it’s engrossing, and I usually learn something. But writing a thriller requires an airtight plot. So I called on a former mentor, a plot guru, who first had me write a three-act story treatment. From that, I wrote a 12,000-word chapter outline. If you’ve heard the adage that even a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, that’s especially true in writing. My thriller plot outline is now becoming a novel. It’s no longer a political thriller—the genre is too tightly circumscribed to work with my original story idea—but had I not gone through the plotting exercises, there’s no way I could have written the current outline, for a work of historical fiction with magical realism elements.

But what about all that time away, did I learn nothing I can use now? Sometimes stepping away from writing can yield a project of its own. If you’ve seen a film, read a book, been to a concert or visited an interesting place, you might write of the experience. You might even find a venue to publish what you’ve written. If your time off from writing didn’t yield an experience you want to share, the break can still be beneficial by sheer dint of having been rest.

If getting back into the grove after all this still seems too much, remember the old Nike slogan: Just do it.