Tag Archives: writers block

Nothing never started gets better.

Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.

Nothing never started gets better.

Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.

As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.

Nothing never started gets better.

(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)

What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.

This almost never happens.

Okay, it maybe happened once.

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.

Flash fiction is creative crack

Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.

I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.

Here’s a secret: Ninety percent of the time when I look at the photo prompts on Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers or Al Forbes Sunday Photo Fiction, I blank. I can’t think of anything.

The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watchingjust do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.

Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.

This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.

Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:

Nothing Anything you never started gets any better.

Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.

So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.

Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.

You can’t improve what you don’t write.

Happy writing.

A Poem With a Four-letter Word

Some days I only manage to write about how much I hate writing. Seems like there was a time I liked it, but it may have been a dream. Now you’ll see why I generally only let the dog write poetry:

Fuck that
which froze the rime pretty on the vine
stole Sundays
summoned ghosts
and plundered fair sleep.
Fuck that
which left the children lack
did slipshod the moneyjob
and inflated my dreams beyond all proportion.
Fuck that.
I will not write.

So there

 

 

If You’re Like Me, Then You Hate John Green or How to Quit the Deadly Comparison Game

aka My Manifesto to Aspiring Writers

Confession time:

For me, reading merits hazard pay. I have to steel myself. And not because I hate reading–heck, before I started writing, I often devoured a book a day. But since I started writing, reading has turned into something else entirely.

And when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.

John D. MacDonald said it best—and not as Travis McGee, but in a preface to Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. I first read it more than three decades ago, but I hear the echo to this day. It was one of those moments when a writer rose off the page, cupped a hand to my ear and leaned close enough for me to feel his breath as he whispered. It was lightning clear. A bolt, a connection, a current passed. I sat up straight, eyes wide. Because when that sort of thing happens—when you know that writer has reached you—it’s wondrous. That thing writers can do—climb off the page and grab you, tickle you, caress you…to understand you in a way that no one else ever could. That’s what it’s all about, baby.

So about Mr. MacDonald’s preface: among the many wonderful things he wrote to aspiring writers, he said, “You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt.”

Grinding envy: check

John Green writes contemporary YA. Mildly gritty, authentic YA, and when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.

John Green also writes shimmering, emotional, compelling YA, with gracious good humor and effortless aplomb. My kids have caught me laughing hysterically at one of his passages, only to find me sobbing four pages later. And it’s times like that when I think what the fuck, dude. What did you just do to me? I mean have enough trouble keeping forward momentum, what with the mom-gig and the day job. Did you have to make it so hard by making it look so easy?

John Green probably doesn’t mean to crush my spirit (maybe that’s just a perk, or why else would he keep doing it?)

And maybe it’s not John Green that sparks that ache in you—the one that kindles that envy-measure: maybe it’s Faulkner, or Maya Angelou or even Dan-fucking-Brown.

You close their book and think: It’s hopeless.

I can’t do that.

Cause they had that voice-thing going, and that lovely translucent metaphor, and that heart-pounding tension and then you pull up your own manuscript and—

 

The cursor blinks.

 

So you poke at a few words from that scene you wrote yesterday, but the shine has worn off. And was that the most tired line of dialogue you’ve ever written or what? So you delete it and try to think of the next scene, but then you remember you really have no idea how you’re going to pull it off—how to get your protagonist to the intersection of plot and plausibility, and just as you’re about to slam the lid of your laptop closed—Stop.

You’re doing it. That comparison thing, and it does you no good. And even if you don’t believe me, you have to stop because you have a duty.

Don’t compare apples to oranges

And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.

You heard me right. There’s a reason you feel called to do this, why you get up early or stay up late, why you keep putting words down in the face of astronomical odds. Why it itches like poison ivy between your shoulder blades if you don’t just friggin’ write.

It’s because your own unique set of circumstances and your particular talents are going to enable you to say something that no one has ever said before. Or, at the very least in a way that no one else has said it.

The Great Gatsby has been said—but your story hasn’t.

If you are called to write, it’s because you have a unique message for someone. A message as myriad as the sum of the days of your life that have brought you to this moment. A reason for doing as unique as any random collection of 100,000 words.

What message you have, I don’t know. And maybe you do. Or maybe you only think you do.

But in the meantime, you have a duty to be there, be present, try hard and do your best. And doing your best means reading other writers. You have a duty to challenge yourself, to be brave. Just periodically vomiting words on the page doesn’t make you a writer any more than being a drunken, self-absorbed womanizer makes you Hemingway. And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.

Now stay tuned for the second part:

Don’t compare apples to apple pie

You’re going to reach someone

When you read Joe Bestseller of the NY Times bestseller list, or N. Ational Bookaward, remember you are reading something that has been through 1, 2, 3 drafts. plus forty-eight revisions; a book that has been vetted by industry professionals, including multiple editors and proofreaders plus a literary agent or two.

Look, if your first draft doesn’t suck then you’re doing it wrong. And if your second draft doesn’t suck then you’re probably still doing it wrong.

The odds are (n)ever in your favor

And since we’re being all honest here, there’s one more thing: if you’re aiming for the bestseller list, or hoping to crack a six-figure advance on a debut novel, the odds are not in your favor.

However, the odds are very good you’re going to accomplish the real reason why you’re doing this. Which you probably don’t even realize. And it’s small and it’s simple:

You’re going to reach someone.

You’re going to reach out through the page, take one reader by the hand, and lean in close enough to for them to feel your breath tick against their ear as you whisper…

Because that’s it.

That’s all there really is. The point of everything, the purpose of every collection of words written since the beginning of time. That’s what writing is: a vessel. A vessel to pass a message from one person to the next.

So stop with the comparing already. They have their message and you have yours.

Read more, compare less. Write and repeat.

 

Chop chop darlings—you have work to do.

A Damn Fine Fire

big bonfire

By Janne Karaste (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I watch her in the field, her sunhat bobbing as she leans to check the early May buds or bends to pull a weed, and I think about how it could have been. And I wonder if we are better because if it.

It started innocently enough. She was busy writing, I was busy sniping and being seventeen, and she started to complain how all her hard work was getting her nowhere. And goddamn me for having the nerve to complain about my life. And so I said to her, “It’s because you suck.”

She stared at me a long moment, as if I’d slapped her. It was surprising, really, because I’d said plenty worse before. But this one particular must have hit her wrong. Maybe she’d been stuck on a tricky piece of dialogue, or opening a chapter. Or who knows, because I think you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s timing.

She cried. Silently at first, but it grew into racking sobs, the sort you never hear outside of daycares or mental asylums. Dad and I stood speechless. Because, honestly— it’s more than a little distressing to watch your wife or mother go unhinged. And up to that point, we’d thought she was put together—you know–upstairs.

It’s just that she had no business doing it—that writing thing. And Dad, he tried to tell her, but you really can’t tell someone they suck at something. Especially when it’s something they want so badly. Except by then, even she was starting to realize. And so I said: “You suck.”

After the crying, like an hour or more of it, she lifted her head and stared across her office, to some faraway place that neither Dad nor I could see. Like a castaway imagining a ship on the horizon. I could see her left eye twitch and she said, “Ahhhh.”

With mighty purpose, she lifted her fingers to the keys of her laptop, and began.

Across the room, the printer whirred to life, spat out one page and then another. The printer shat and spat and spewed her stories, one by one. The poems, the plays, the essays. The treatments and the novels. Her collection of flash fiction, the synopses and her journals.

The stack of papers grew so tall that pages gushed onto the floor and still—she kept on printing. Soon the words all faded gray, and fainter still, with skinny lines all eaten through, until there were only ghosts of words. And finally, blank.

She watched the empty pages churn through the inkless printer, let them flutter to the floor because there was nowhere else to land.

Once the printer stopped, she started to erase. One by one, jaw clenched, she opened all the files, stabbed the keys, and killed her stories. Each pitch, each book, each query. And once she’d hunted down the last, nuked the text and jabbed delete, she slammed the lid of her laptop shut, looked up and glared at me.

“Ha,” she said. But by now I could only look away.

She pushed back from her desk, got up and staggered toward the printer. Lurching right and left, she shoveled armloads of papers into an open garbage can.

Then she charged past Dad and me and marched out the doorway, down the hall and into the backyard—all the time holding that trashcan in front of her like she was leading the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And just outside the shade of the sycamore, she dumped it.

She went back three more times, shoveling in every last page that had drifted about the office, until she had a pile outside a good two feet tall. After vanishing into the garage for a minute, she came out with lighter fluid. For a good five minutes, she stood there spraying, stopped and dropped it. Went inside and came out smirking, her laptop high above her head, like an airport chauffeur awaiting a mysterious stranger, and when she got to the pit, she slammed it down—so hard we heard her grunt, felt the thump and heard it echo about the yard.

She rattled out the last few drops of lighter fluid and looked over her shoulder at us. “Matches,” she smiled.

Dad crossed a protective arm over me and took a step back. “No.”

As if he could stop her. “Yesss,” she said. I could see the whites of her eyes all the way around.

She pushed past, ran inside, and rifled through the kitchen drawers, leaving every last one open. But there was not a lighter or a match to be found—so she charged across the yard, broke off a low-hanging branch, snapped it on one knee and proceeded to rub two sticks together.

She kept at it for forty minutes, stopping every now and then to push her hair back and wipe the sweat out of her eyes. And when she started crying again, I drove to Gas Buddy and bought her a lighter.

They say the flames shot up two stories.

When the fire steadied, she pulled up an Adirondack and a box of Barefoot and stayed there all afternoon and evening. When the flames got low, she dragged out her box of writing tomes, her chair and desk. Piece by piece, she fed them to the fire. Now and then, she’d poke the embers with an old golf club and tip her head back to watch the sparks roar up to the sky, like stars set free.

I think about that day a lot now, about how different it was back then and how seldom you seen the demarcations in your life that you can point to it and say, that is when it happened. That is when it changed.

She doesn’t talk much now, or smile often, but I think she’s happy. She spends a lot of time outdoors, and I think the vineyard suits her better than writing ever did.

There’s just too much trouble in it—the writing—and no way to know if it’s right. I think that’s what pushed her over the edge that day, realizing what it was, how imperfect. How deficient. How incomplete.

Now that it’s gone—her writing, I mean—I’ve wondered. It probably wasn’t fair, what I said about her work. It might have been true—or maybe it was only true to me. Or perhaps it was just true at the time. No one can say for sure. But I think she realized what I do now—there’s no way to measure writing, no way to prove and no way to ever know if it’s right. There is only one true thing about it:

It makes a damn fine fire.