The Summer of You ~ Pt. 3
Writer's block and pushing into dangerous emotional terrain
This is a combo post: Behind the Scenes, Writing Lab & Open Mic so, it’s all free today.
Behind the Scenes:
For the last three weeks, I’ve set the goal every morning to get up early, meditate/pray, stretch, maybe shower, and then sit down and write.
You’ve taken enough time off to restore yourself, I tell myself. It’s time to get back to work.
But instead of writing, an hour vanishes into texting the kids, reading a news article, or listening to an interview on Twitter (or X, as Musk is calling it now). Another hour vanishes into tending the garden, changing the water in the bird bath, or answering a slew of emails from those wanting to consult or attend a workshop.
I rise at seven, but every day I whittle away the morning until it is eleven. Then twelve. Then two. Then four. And still have yet to write a single word on my novel.
I believe it was Sue Monk Kidd, in the back of her novel The Invention of Wings, who wrote that she considers sitting on a dock and watching the river flow part of her creative day. And perhaps this “stalling” or “frittering the hours away” is part of my creative day, but still, I find myself in a panic of questions. What is wrong with you? What’s going on?
While SMK turns to sitting on her dock and watching the river flow, Stephen King goes out for walks, and Jane Smiley takes a shower; my reassurance comes from “taking account.”
Above is a screenshot from the Scrivener “project targets” tab. As you can see, I’ve got 58,581 words and 43 days left to finish it (if I write 2000 words daily).
In an odd and slightly geeky way, this helps me calm myself enough to stop wondering what’s wrong and to remind myself that I still have time to hit my intended deadline. And now I’ve calmed down, I can remind myself of a teaching from Tom Spanbauer, who used to say, “If you are having a problem moving forward in your story, it usually means something went wrong in the earlier pages or the setup.”
When a story stalls—especially in the second act, where I find myself right now—it means I dropped a thread in my character motivation. This isn’t entirely surprising because I have two character arcs, so I’m getting a little confused.
Second-act problems are where most writers need help. NOTE: When I say second act, I mean after the first plot point and before the climactic action.
The underlying teaching is this: Overcoming writer’s block is often more about identifying the problem.
Now I can make strategic choices. I can either print out the whole thing and read through it to better see where it falls apart, or I can leap over this rough patch and write forward.
Since I know where I’m going in this novel, I might do the latter and note in the margins about feeling lost and unfocused. Or, I’ll do the former because I’ve got people visiting over the next few weeks and won’t be able to write much anyway. Reading the whole could help me see the bigger picture of this novel. I can start charting my primary character arcs.
Already this last idea is netting fruit. As I drive to this appointment or tend to the garden, I see the core character arcs more clearly.
🎤 Open Mic Response:
On July 9th, I asked FS readers to answer a few questions, and I want to take on Sue’s answer today.
Q: What is your biggest challenge/frustration right now in your creative process?
A: Sue C of Shelton, CT writes: I am struggling going back to Artie's story. Still trying to get there. I'm working on a piece about the worst anxiety attack I had with him and the fallout. It has lots of legs and, of course, an elephant.
I know Sue pretty well, we’ve worked together for a few years now, and I’ve had a chance to see her struggle with the Artie story.
The Artie story, for context, is about young love and being drawn in by a challenging and complex man.
As she worked on the Artie story, Sue found her way into a series of compelling stories about her large and boisterous family and her coming of age amidst the bountiful 50s and 60s.
When Sue reads her family stories in workshop, the consensus is always “keep going” because she skillfully captures a young, awkward, hopeful, and self-loathing girl of deep longings who tries to find her way amidst a tumultuous era. The juxtaposition of the outer and inner world is alluring, and while Sue isn’t having “fun” writing these stories, they’re working.
That she’s managed to get to the most significant anxiety attack of her life by re-entering the Artie story and leading to her writing about the break-up is enormous progress. Bravo! And well done, Sue.
Like life, our writing journey always looks different than we thought it would look. Just as I wrote about my slog on the novel, writing is complicated work. While this reality is disheartening, it’s also reassuring because the only constant is that we will always swing, like a pendulum, between moments of inspiration and moments of frustration. You. Me. Stephen King. Sue Monk Kidd. Jane Smiley. The list goes on and on.
During the frustration phase, reminding ourselves that this work matters can be helpful. Though we cannot see the results, often for years, what is written through intention, humility, and openness is part of the journey of evolution.
What you write, Sue, about your anxiety attacks and this guy, Artie, who haunts your memories and confounds you all these years later impacts you AND me, and everyone else. Your efforts to remember, describe, and feel more fully what you couldn’t feel at the time is the mighty and vital work of self-awareness and consciousness.
So, I know you didn’t ask a question as much as share this process, and in turn, it allows me to bow deeply to you and all the writers out there. You’re doing great. Keep going!
~ Jennifer, 🍎
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