I am sure many of us have read many articles, books and social media postings that give advice on how to write. All of them differ in the detail but the common thread of all is ‘Just Write!’ which makes sense. Many writers, including myself, can get hung up on the fear that our next paragraph or page may not set the literary world alight. When such fear strikes, we end up staring at a blank screen or holding a pen like a human statue.
Then we may leave our desks and fix a sandwich or a bicycle and not return to our desks. We excuse ourselves by claiming writer’s block. I used to believe in writer’s block but only speaking for myself, it was not writer’s block that ever stopped me from writing but my own fears and lack of ability to marry my personal/working life to my creative life. Having spend the past week thinking about my own creative processes, I’ve come to the conclusion that there maybe no such thing as writer’s block.
What I believe to have been writer’s block was really my perceived inability to write blistering prose from the get-go. I sat down many times and typed a sentence or two only to end them not with a period/full-stop but my forefinger pinning down the backspace key until I had a nice pristine but blank screen looking back at me.
A blank screen is like a mirror to the writer’s soul. It reflects back at us what we fill it with. However, better for any image to appear that no image at all. Often, I preferred no image than poor writing. This is what held me back and now I recognise it.
I was hamstrung by perfectionism. I thought no sentence was better than no sentence at all.
So I justified by torpor by the respectability of the term ‘writer’s block’. If you think about it, in what other profession could one get away with days or weeks of non-productivity? The long the muscle rests, the weaker it gets and the longer a writer doesn’t write, the harder it becomes even to the point when the writer him/herself has to ask the question ‘Am I a writer at all?’
So I picked myself up and sat down and wrote. I had no structure in mind, not even a story or a plot, just a general essay on my forthcoming visit to Seattle and why I chose America over Britain. I let my fingers be the medium for my many thoughts and the words flowed from my fingers. Much of what I wrote in the first draft was badly spelt and unstructured but I was back on the saddle, holding onto the reins and not letting myself be thrown off by that bucking bronco of self-doubt and negative self-thought.
‘No, don’t write that!’
‘That’s a rubbish sentence’
‘You’re using the passive tense you verbal weakling’
‘Man, you are cliché city’
These were the demons that sat inside my eardrums during my essay and I told them where to go.
And you know something? Demons are very obedient. All you have to do is tell them to go away and they will vanish like a midday ice cube in the Kalahari. The corollary of this is that such demons are very willing to take up residence if you let the door’s of doubt lie open.
I finished my draft and the feeling of achievement and release was heady. I didn’t care how raw or unpolished the draft was. It was not carved on a marble tablet, impervious to edit. Within half an hour, I revised and rewrote my first draft, cutting unnecessary words out, replacing clichés with more original material without resorting to the ridiculous. I swapped sentences around and removed the passive voice and replaced unnecessarily complex words with simpler ones that conveyed the same meaning. When a writer uses unusual words, his/her readers may reach for the dictionary but this immediately puts an extra step between the reader and writer. In fact, the reader may find the dictionary more entertaining and rewarding than the book as the dictionary has the forethought to explain what everything means.
The key objective of any form of writing be it literary, factual, technical or genre is to be understood by the reader.
How many pans of dirt did the prospectors of the Klondike need to dig before they found a nugget of gold? They kept panning and panning until they hit pay-dirt, literally! Same goes for writing. So you wrote pages of turgid unreadable material that everyone would laugh at? Who cares. The fact that you wrote something is an achievement in itself. Just repeat the process. Revise what you wrote, study what didn’t work and fix it. Do this as often as you like until you are happier. This is the craft of editing. What sculptor knocked off a bronze statue of perfection in one go. The first chips of the chisel give overall shape to the final form. The angel only appears after many many deft and careful hammerings of the chisel.
Same goes for writing.
When I was pleased with my revisions, I posted it and here I am again, writing another blog post and this leads to me the book I mentioned at the start of this article.
Creativity be it writing, sculpture, painting or even baking a cake cannot take place without the right environment or the right attitude. We are all individuals and most creatives need routines. Some are lucky to jump out of bed in the morning and start work right away and this is great. However most of us need a routine before we start writing. I see this as pulling the boat to the river. You can’t sail when your boat is tethered to the top of your car or in your shed.
My routine is breakfast, a cup of tea, listening to a podcast, a shower and writing my morning pages
Yes, these are like a diary but it can contain any thing you wish to write about and is purely private. The important thing about them is that they must be hand-written on actual paper. Yes, I know, I too thought I had forgotten how to write by hand but you will be surprised how those spidery scrawls can give way to legible words.
The reason why you must hand-write is to give you a physical and visceral connection between you and your art. The subject matter is immaterial but its important that it contains your thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears amongst it all. I consider this the act of taking the boat from my shed to the lake. It gives me the discipline of writing, writing something at the start of every day no matter what it contains. It also gives me insight and can even kick-start new thought processes and ideas that can feed into your creative writing later in the day.
After a couple of days,, the act of writing morning pages becomes part of your daily morning routine. In doing so, not a day goes past without you, the writer, being a writer. Only 2-3 pages is sufficient. The only other stipulations is that you right them in the same journal and don’t read or revise previous entries. Perhaps every several months one can read past entries and see how one has grown, changed even.
Then when you are done, later on that day when you sit down at your laptop, your blank screen no longer resembles a mountain to be climbed but a rose garden to be watered.
I can only speak for myself but my initial scepticism was blown away completely only after 4 days of putting this into practice. I’ve never had a better week than this for a long time and I feel very empowered.
I can only suggest that you try it for yourself and see how it works.
I am reading a book at the moment The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron