When the writing doesn’t come easy

Sandra Scoppettone writes one of the most honest and heartfelt blogs on the web.  On January 24, she wrote:

“I have the awful feeling that I can’t write anymore. Some part of me is fed up with the whole process. It’s not that I have to feel pleasure all the time I’m writing. That would be unrealistic. But I feel no pleasure at all. It feels like I’m simply hitting keys. Writing for the sake of writing because I’m supposed to be a writer. “

Oh man, do I understand what she’s saying.  From time to time I’ve shared her feelings of hopelessness and ennui.  I’ve wondered when writing stories stopped being fun.  I’ve felt fed up with the process and the constantly churning anxiety of fast-approaching deadlines.  But who are we to complain?  We’re published authors!  We’re living the dream, and we should shut up and be grateful!

Yet Sandra’s blog (which strikes me as incredibly brave and just a touch foolhardy in its honesty) points out the downside of writing as a job, and it’s this: your whole career, the whole rickety house of cards, rests entirely on your continuing ability to spin something out of absolutely nothing.  It’s not like, say, building doghouses.  Building a doghouse takes materials which are readily available at the hardware store, a set of tools, and maybe a blueprint.  Follow the instructions, and you have your doghouse.  Every single time.  You can pretty much count on having those tools and those materials handy, and as long as you have the time, you can build endless numbers of doghouses. 

But a writer’s primary tool, beyond the pen or the keyboard, is his imagination.  And that’s a damn unreliable tool.  It fractures with just the slightest stress.  A serious illness or a divorce or a few sleepless nights can make that tool completely unusable.  Suddenly you can’t figure out the next plot twist.  You can’t hear the dialogue.  As the days go by, and no writing gets done, you start to panic and that warps your tool even more.  You just want to be writing again, but because you’re now so anxious about the whole process, the short walk to your desk starts to feel like a trip to the salt mines.  All because your most valuable tool as a writer, your imagination, has gone missing.

How do we get it back?  In Sandra’s case, it sounds like she plans to take a break.  She doesn’t know how long it will be, but she knows that in her bones she’s a writer, and she expects she’ll be back. 

I’m sure she will.

11 replies
  1. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Is there an inner self inside a writer that wants to come out, or is there a writer within your inner self that wants to come out?
    Without inhibitions, I guess we’ll just never know until we try…………..
    Abe

  2. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Hi Tess,

    It’s a fickle business, to be sure, but for those who adore the fact that we CAN take something out of thin air and put it on a printed page for others to share, and hopefully enjoy, there’s not a better way to make a living – struggles not withstanding.

    What writer doesn’t know the fear of the blank page staring at us after hours of pondering the perfect scenario, and the delete key wipes out each idea because it wasn’t good enough.

    There’s nothing wrong with taking a break. I watch a movie or read something totally different to get inspired again. A good long walk on the beach also works. Somehow, the blank page inevitably fills up and the process begins anew.

    No one can give it up for long. It’s like breathing.

    Mary

  3. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    That’s damn tough. I always wonder if I’m going to be able to make it as a full-time writer, having to sit down for hours every day. Right now, it’s all very sporadic, because of school and working I write when I can… But will I be able to do it when I have nothing else to do?

    Was it easy for you to make that transition yourself?

    I can’t imagine how it would feel to lose the spark. My heart really goes out to Sandra and I hope taking a break helps her get her mojo back…!

  4. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Hey All,
    I love these subjects that Tess brings up, theyre facinating and its good to see into a world that very few know about, the secret life of an author.

    Whilst everyone has doubts about what they do and worry intensely that what theyve done is right, I suppose that the hardest jobs are those done alone, you dont have people to bounce things off, you dont have a comfort blanket of others telling you that things are going well. The only people that you can rely on are family and to be honest, at times theyre more of a hindrance than anything else as they dont want to hurt your feelings.

    As a want to be author (or Author-In-Training as I prefer, LOL) I find it refreshing to find that problems I hit, the professionals do, it gives me hope that Im doing something right and as such its facinating when something goes right, at times leaving you wondering where that little Gem that just hit the page came from. Its perhaps one of the last vestiges of magic in the world as know one truly knows where the text originates from.

    Likewise when you want to write I find the biggest help is to read a hell of a lot, you get to see what works for you and what doesnt. Then when youve gone through a lot, that glimmer of light will shine through. The result? Lo and behold you get to see the blueprints behind the writing. Yep thats right, youre looking at the architecture and whilst a number of people read a lot of self help, how to write books, perhaps the best advice is to look at things from a movie standpoint, ie splitting the novel into three acts with each act comprising of a theme.

    Each author has thier own magical touch and as Ive said to see the doubt creep in, whilst disturbing is something that everyone suffers from at some point. Its how you pick yourself up, dust off the footprints and carry on that counts. In a creative field, doubts can do more than cripple, they can technically kill you and as such its how you fight your way out. Taking a break can help but set yourself a time as otherwise that horse that youve got to climb back on, which was originally a shetland pony is now looking like it should have come straight out of history from Troy. I hope that Sandra can overcome the problems that she’s having and get back on that Colt that she loves.

    All the best,

    Gareth

  5. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Maybe writing something completely different than what the author is used to would raise the pleasure quotient. I’m not sure taking a break does anything besides give the author more time to contemplate not writing.

  6. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    Hi Tess.

    Really appreciate your honesty and I’ve felt the same at times. One new book out that really clarified a lot of things for me is Ellen Sandler’s book, “The TV Writer’s Wookbook.” One thing she said in particular went like this: “A writer needs to be able to look into the void for a while and to be comfortable until the story starts to come.” Found this to be a very self-reassuring thought.

    The Canadian writer, the late Robertson Davies, had a creative process he could go to and depend upon each and every day. He knew where to start and then it flowed from there. Ellen Sandler lays out such a process that, to me, really makes sense. Mr. Davies said he never had to depend upon inspiration or any other process of the mind or creative spirit. He just sat down and followed his process and wrote. And he became an international star.

    Anyway, my own feeling is, that if I have a good outline (for content) and a good idea of how I’m going to write each chapter (for structure) then I’m not going to get lost. The particular scene might not be entirely clear but I’ll know which one I’m working on and how it fits. Hanging on to this information, I can hopefully look into the void and hope to feel comfortable. But you’re right, it takes a lot of faith and courage to get past the self-doubt. On the other hand, once a person is through the “void stage” and it starts to work and flow, what could be better?

  7. ec
    ec says:

    Been there. A string of serious illnesses, two operations, and the resulting increase in a lifelong struggle with depression has seriously effed with my productivity over the last several years. Which in turn resulted in missed deadlines. Which can be deadly.

    I’m currently working to regain lost ground. It’s not easy. Sometimes I doubt it’s possible.

    Yep, scary business.

  8. therese
    therese says:

    All of us are on a journey, for our own reasons within our own life.

    What Tess has pointed out touches a special chord within us. Passion vs. practicality. Where is the line drawn and what’s the point?

    Do we trust the muse or do we create the muse?

    If that concept doesn’t fire the writer within, what will?

    When is it time to change from the writer to the speaker? When is it time to stop stressing over a book a year to a book every two or three, so it’s really good, while promoting the books already written on their merit and the option of encouraging readers to read?

    How did I luck out, to get that agent or editor that saw the spark in me and took faith in my journey?

    Nothing ever stays stagnant. The journey today may not work for the journey tomorrow. And that’s what makes life fun.

  9. Kristin G
    Kristin G says:

    My reassurance that I can and will be able to keep writing comes from the fact that there nothing else that I want to do more as far as work. Besides cooking a good meal, which is also a creative endeavor, writing is the only thing that I enjoy and want to spend my time doing in order to make a living.

    I think that is huge in maintaining my desire to keep writing. Even on the worst days, I’d rather be writing than doing anything else.

  10. rosinalippi
    rosinalippi says:

    I know exactly how this feels because I’ve been stuck in the middle of a similar nightmare for six months, at least. Desperation is not too small a word. When all your life writing has defined you and it suddenly cannot be depended on, the fear is overwhelming.

    And the worst part is, no amount of supportive talk or whip brandishing will help. You’ve got to climb out of the hole on your own.

    If I were a drinker, I’d be headed for the bar about now. Thank dog for small advantages.

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