Writers’ doubt and how to live with it

Doubt is normal. All writers have it, get it, live with it. Published, unpublished, still thinking about doing it and/or starting it one day.

But when it strikes, and I’m not talking about the little itty bitty strikes of ‘oh, perhaps if I change this one word, oh, yes that’s it, it’s perfect’, I’m talking about the ‘doubt doldrums’ (see Andrea’s post on this) and all the chaos and messing with your head that that involves. How do you move on and out of the doubt and the low level rumblings shaking you to the very core of your belief in yourself and your ability as a writer.

I suppose it’s the start of writers block, or the cause of writers block and I want to know if I can nip it in the bud. I’ve been dragging my feet (fingers on keyboard) for the last two weeks and all I’ve got is one poem to show for it. And the all pervasive feeling running inside my mind that I’m not good enough, what am I doing, I’m wasting time, this writing is rubbish, what am I thinking, how on earth could I think I could be a writer…it’s been running on and on and on…

But this time, I’m on to my repeating pattern and I want to stop it.
How do I recognise the pattern and nip it in the bud?
How long does it go on before I can activate some strategy to stop the doubt and get my brain back and focused on the problem at hand – writing the damn novel?

So strategy, what can be done as soon I know I’m going down the slippery slope, faster and faster, sliding down into doubt and how do I bring myself back to writing again, that carefree satisfaction that comes from enjoying the freedom of writing a shitty first draft.

1. Recognise the problem

2. Write about anything else but what you’re working on
Write about the problem. I wrote a poem. Even opening up your notebook and writing the date can be the starting point. Free write. Go to a café and write. Go to a beach and soak in the salt air and write. Write in any other place to your normal writing spot – I moved out of my office onto the kitchen table to complete the major second draft of my novel last year.

3. Get away
Do the housework, do the gardening, clean the gutters, spring clean (it’s that time of year when the light makes every bit of dust look twenty times bigger than it was in winter), walk, go for a drive.
Bigger budget – think bigger! Smaller budget, walk. Just walk. The rhythm of your feet on the ground works both sides of your brain – left and right.

4. Take a break
No, not a couple of hours. A real break, a holiday from writing. A free from ‘any writing pressure’ slot in time, marked in the diary, just for you to get a real, complete break from writing. All jobs give you holidays – writing should be no different. Know when you’re coming back.

5. Accept that writing is for the long haul
Disillusion can set in when we are in the middle of a project. Recognise that novel writing takes time, has its ups and downs, fluctuations, bursts, day dreaming times and it will get done. We are creating even when there are no words on the page. These moments, days of doubt are normal, meander through them and rest in them. Find the courage to see these days for what they are.

6. Come back to the page
Write the date. Write some rubbish, stuff you’ll never use for anything else.
Try the 33 minute productivity technique.

7. Read about doubt to understand it.

Dorothea Brande in her book, Becoming A Writer, says in the section entitled ‘The Slough of Despond’,
‘But then comes the dawning comprehension of all that a writer’s life implies: not easy day dreaming, but hard work at turning the dream into reality without sacrificing all its glamour…wonders how (s)he ever dared to think (s)he had a word worth saying…Every writer goes through this period of despair. Without doubt many promising writers, and most of those who were never meant to write, turn back at this point and find a lifework less exacting.’

I started this post to think of ways of managing moments, who are we kidding, periods of doubt and I’m ending it by saying, we need to recognise doubt as a normal part of being a writer. But in order to be writers, keep writing, we need to find our own way to move forward through moments of doubt and disillusion, to step out onto the other side.

 

 

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Finishing and the writing diet

Stephen King was right. I was re-reading his book ‘On writing’ and he talked about getting the first draft of a novel done as quickly as possible and in one go because the longer it took, there would be loss of momentum, loss of attachment with your characters and their plight and everything would become a bit of a struggle.

So I should have done that for this first draft and kept going after Nanowrimo last year. But I didn’t. I took a ‘break’, a long one, and I’m dawdling and other things keep fighting for my attention and the novel is not moving on despite my knowing exactly what happens next.

So I have to keep going, make time, and just do it.

Or I have to figure out if it is the next scene or chapter that is the problem and figure out if I need to revise my idea of what happens next.

I did my first draft for my first novel in about six weeks. My second novel took about 2.5 months. And, I think, it’s pure cockiness on my part that I haven’t finished the first draft of this third novel. (Hey, look at me, I finished one novel, this one will slip right out, easy peasy. Wrong.)

Right. Time for bum on seat and get on with it. Plan out a writing plan for the next week, times I can give myself for writing and force through the next few words, sentences, paragraphs and pages until I push through the block holding this novel from progressing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong (to me) with the story of the third novel – I love the ideas I’ve come up with for this novel but I seem to have slowed my momentum down too much and need a mental push to get to the next chapter and so on, until the first draft is complete.

Here goes. Find my writing time. Commit and begin again.

This is just like being on a diet – the writing diet! Fall off the wagon, pick myself up, and start again.

Struggling to finish

I remember doing one of those personality tests years ago and I remember ignoring the results. It was something like…I was good at starting and investigating things but poor on completion i.e. finishing.

So when I struggled to finish the second draft (second attempt at second draft) of my second novel (note: first novel still needs to be re-written and third novel draft to be finished) that I noticed that for the first half of the draft I was flying along with the words and ideas and, hey, life was great, it was a breeze…

But then, when I had to bring it to a conclusion, I seemed to hit wall after wall of self-doubt that I could do it.

So how did I call time and bring a halt to that stuttering of thought…how did I get myself to write the next word, the next sentence, and the ones after that?

I told myself that I can do this. I have been doing this.

To breathe in deeply.

Remind myself; Believe. Listen. Trust.

Believe in me.

Listen to me.

Trust in me.

Told myself, I will be a finisher. I am a finisher. End of.

And then got back to the writing….

The positives of procrastination

The byline of this blog is simple ‘Writing and the art of procrastination’ and yet I’m loath to admit that I get more productive after I’ve procrastinated a bit. After all, we’re supposed to be productive all the time, you know, bang out the 5000 plus words of our target before lunch. Every day. Simples. Not.

This blog post from Positive Writer says it all brilliantly about embracing procrastination, labelling procrastination as taking a break or slowing down but without the guilt trip because a break refreshs you for the next writing session, slowing down reduces stress, gives your mind time to mull over the next scene, action, word.

Here it is: Creative Flow: 8 Reasons Why Procrastinating is Better than Working

 

Tackling writer’s block

We can spend days, weeks, months, or years blocked as we get through our novels. Some of it could be due to not knowing. Not knowing how to write, not knowing how to craft a novel, not knowing what happens next…

In a previous post I wrote about being stuck, the responses that came out of me were about not knowing the basics of how to write a novel which I deeply wanted to do. Two years later, after reading loads of books on novel writing, a couple of courses later, many drafts later, practice, practice, practice, I’m starting to see the light, through moments of being so stuck and frustrated to moments when I can actually push through and rewrite and say to myself, yes, that’s what I was trying to write, that’s exactly it, that paragraph, that scene or that chapter is working now.

Recently, I got advice from Mia Gallagher, author of ‘Hellfire’, about tackling my novel, at a recent poetry/prose event. She told me to:

1. Take time to do your re-write – don’t feel under pressure.

2. Be honest about where it rings true and doesn’t.

3. Experiment with being uncomfortable – to go further in the writing. The next level is unknown.

4. Use a structured environment to push the most out, to crack through.

5. Stay with the blank page, feel the unease.

To get to that point, to push through those days I get stuck, when things are uncomfortable, when there is unease, I write the sentence ‘What is wrong?’ and write whatever comes out of me down onto the page. So when you’re stuck, ask these questions,

‘What’s wrong?’

‘What’s wrong with this?’

‘Why am I stuck?’

Write whatever comes to mind, be true to yourself. My own responses range from nothing happening, I stare at a blank page as my mind churns away, unaware or afraid to admit what I’m thinking. Let’s be honest writer’s block that isn’t from lack of skills comes from not knowing what should be next or knowing that you’ve written a shitty first draft and haven’t a notion of how to craft and rewrite that draft into something publishable and getting stuck in the re-write of a chapter or part of the novel that may not be working at all.

So write the question down. Dig deep and be honest. My own responses are usually very simple like:

It’s wrong. Something’s wrong.

It’s not working.

It’s boring, repetitive.

Push on further and ask yourself, if there were no constraints on where this story could go, what would be the most interesting thing that could happen next in the plot, and jot the ideas down, brainstorm them out. As the ideas come, one knocks into your thoughts and the chapters/scenes begin to form on the page.

Alternatively, take a break, allow yourself a break, step away from the work and the ideas and inspiration you need, will come again.

Our whole creative lives

We are creators. Everything we do in life is a process of creating something, as writers, artists, dancers but in every other job in life there are always creative elements. Indeed, this extends to our lives as a whole and our very existence as humans. We survive best with our creativity utilised, we need to.

An example of a job with creating in it is engineering. This is creating with skills and information, acquired in college or university or through a trade course. If you want to design a new machine, your basic design or prototype is a way of creatively using your engineering skills, using what you know to make the best possible model of your idea.

Or perhaps you’re re-designing the layout of a manufacturing process, same thing, you have the limits of each stage of the process and the product in mind and then you ‘brainstorm’ or ‘think outside the box’ i.e. use your creative juices to break the mould of what has been done before, to come up with a unique way of getting that product made. For example, combining stages, eliminating a stage, look at the start and end of each stage for small changes that can be made, look at the process as a whole to see if stages can be moved around, cut out waste in the process, etc…

As writers, without a doubt we create, and like an engineer, we learn and practice to hone our skills. Some of us do degrees and masters in the craft and some of us come up through the ranks with practice alone, or perhaps through the reading of books about writing or examples of fine writing in themselves.

And like any creative, there are days when we need to mull just that bit longer to solve a problem, for example in writing, we call it writer’s block. As an engineer, you don’t usually get unlimited time to be blocked, there is a deadline, a plan in place that has milestones to be adhered to, so most engineers brainstorm their way out of the block, come up with ideas to use, work the ideas, if stuck again, they brainstorm again and so on. Perhaps this is something that can help us push forward in writing. Brainstorm our way out of being stuck – what’s wrong, what’s not working and why?

We are creative in everything we tackle in our lives, even in the ways we avoid doing things, but like other aspects of our lives, we can use this knowledge to push through moments of struggle to help us put our writing in perspective as just another aspect of us creating something and use skills we may already have to keep our writing going.

When writing stops in turmoil

Up to last Sunday, I always found that my writer’s block came from within me, from a fear of not being able to write or writing properly or writing wrong or the wrong thing or the constant interruptions of everyday life that jolts me out of the writing routine, but now I add another one – fear of losing a loved one – from something that happens externally that cannot be controlled.

I heard that my dad, who has cancer, was really unwell and in pain for over a week. My mother defied his request not to tell ‘the children’ (the youngest of us is thirty-six) what was happening to him and called us when the worry became too much to bear on her own. What made the situation worse was that they live in another country and between Skype and texts we found out how serious everything had become.

By Thursday, ten days after the problem started, my dad was admitted to hospital and eventually, the news came that we wanted to hear; he was conscious, drinking and could eat by Friday, and now he’s coming home today. He may not be the same again or this was just a blip.

Over the last week, I was in shock at the possibility of losing him and I felt paralysed, could not think about anything except the routine of life and within that routine, writing did not feature. I couldn’t face conjuring up a scene in my mind or placing the next words down on the screen because all I could do was wait for the next text from my mother, after a visit to a doctor or after visiting hours in the hospital.

The fears dropped bit by bit with every sliver of good news that came in over the weekend. Until, at last, this morning, I knew I was ready and started writing again.

So writer’s block for the most part is within my control, when I conquer my own inner fears, the so-called inner critic, I can use basic ways of getting the writing going again e.g. planning small tasks, switching off doubt or writing out the problem, but getting writer’s block when you are worried sick for another person, I’m going to have to figure out how to move beyond that one because it will probably happen again.