Bumps in the Road and How to Navigate Them
By Kris Faatz
When I started writing seriously, almost ten years ago, I thought it was going to be easy. I was between jobs, and as a kid I’d always liked to write, and I had an idea for a book. What better time to jump in? I’d get my brilliant idea down on paper, and then get serious about finding a new job.
Sometimes I wonder, if I could go back and tell that superbly optimistic twenty-something what she was getting into, whether she would still jump into that project with both feet. I’m glad I didn’t know what the journey was going to be like. What writing a book was going to take, in terms of commitment, tolerance for frustration, willingness to try and try and try again, and especially time. If my younger self had known it would take close to a decade before that book in her head saw daylight, I think she would have decided to do something easier. Maybe hike the Himalayas.
In December of 2007, I started playing with the vague idea that became my first book, To Love A Stranger. Working on Stranger taught me about a lot of things. Patience. Rejection, and exactly how much heartbreak I could handle (a lot more than I thought). Never to take what I knew for granted. Most of all, writing my book taught me that if I cared enough about getting this story on paper, I was going to have to let myself be a student again. I was an adult, I’d had lots of school, but when it came to this project, I was the rawest, most bumbling beginner. If I let go of pride and opened my ears and eyes and mind, I would learn how to do the work right.
This path has had plenty of bumps and roadblocks along the way. In this post, I’d like to share four of the biggest ones I’ve encountered. If you know them, too, maybe some of these thoughts will help.
“I would rather count all the dust particles in my house than sit down at my computer/typewriter/notebook.”
We’ve all been there: we’ve claimed some writing time, and we sit down at our desk, or in the living room, or at the coffee shop…and nothing happens. So much nothing, in fact, that we want to run away from the blank page that’s staring at us as stubbornly as a page can stare.
Sometimes we get paralyzed by the fear that, whatever we thought we wanted to write about, we can’t possibly put it down well enough on the page. (I ran into that with my novel, many times.) Sometimes it’s hard to focus, thinking about the laundry that needs to be done, the list of errands waiting for us, the job we have to get to later in the day. Sometimes we just realize that we have the time, but we don’t have the words. The ideas refuse to come.
When I’m in that place, I give myself a small assignment: one double-spaced page. That’s all I have to fill. Once I do, I can get up and get on with the day. I can fill that page with any kind of nonsense that pops into my head; it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be. In his terrific book on the writing craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (really), author Lawrence Block says, “They don’t have to be good words. They don’t have to be the right words. You don’t have to enjoy writing them or be proud of having written them. You don’t even have to think the whole process is worth doing. Do it anyway.” Back when I was starting To Love A Stranger, I copied out that quote and taped it up where I would see it every day. On plenty of days, it made the difference between working and not.
But what if the ideas aren’t there? What if, for instance, you want to start a story, and you don’t know what it’s about? When that happens to me, I’ll pick one thing, and write whatever I can about it. Maybe it’s a character, someone who might or might not be in the story at all, but who’s in my head for some reason. Maybe it’s a place. Maybe it’s a tiny fragment of a scene. For instance, in the story I’m currently working on, I have a girl sitting at a potter’s wheel. I don’t know for sure, yet, who she is, or what her conflict is, or where the story is going to go, and I’ve already restarted the piece at least half a dozen times. But I can see her there at that wheel, with the wet clay slurry staining her hands grey, and I know that if I keep playing with that image, and seeing her in my head, eventually I’ll learn more about her.
So find one thing you can write about that will fill one page. Describe your cat, or your desk, or your pencil. Write about the neighbour outside mowing his lawn for the third time that week. Copy down the argument you and your husband had last night about the bedroom curtains. Anything at all. It’s only one page.
“I’ve got don’t have rhythm.”
Last week, I had to give a piano recital. Monday through Thursday, I crash-practised. On Friday night, I performed. On Saturday morning, I sat down at my computer and tried to make up for lost writing time (starting again with that girl at the potter’s wheel). That kind of thing happens to me a lot. I go back and forth between different sides of life, and often, there doesn’t seem to be much rhythm in my work.
A lot of writers will tell you that it’s essential to write every day. Stephen King, for instance, in his excellent On Writing, warns us that if we don’t carve out that writing time and, if nothing else, stare at the blank page every day, the muse won’t come to us. I’ve found, though, that it’s okay to do things differently.
I’m a “feast or famine” writer. When I’m in a project, when the words are flowing and one page leads to the next with happy speed, I don’t want to do anything else. Laundry piles up, groceries go unbought, and occasionally I’ve been known to take a “mental health day” to stay home and write (don’t tell). Then, when I’m between projects, I can go for days or weeks without writing.
I’ve also learned, though, that if I go too long without any computer time at all, eventually I get out of sorts and don’t feel like myself. Having something, even if it’s just on the back burner, for my mind to play with while I’m doing other things, is my anchor.
My main point is that each of us will have our own writing rhythm, and all of us will be different. If writing every day is your rhythm, that’s terrific. If it isn’t, though, don’t feel guilty or try to pressure yourself into changing your own pattern. Find your natural speed and stay true to it.
“If one more journal/editor/agent/workshop/etc. turns me down, I am going to move to the Mojave Desert and become a hermit.”
Let’s say it straight out: rejection sucks. You pour the best of yourself into a project, put your soul on the page, send it out into the world… and then somebody tells you, “No, sorry. Not for me.”
It can feel deeply personal. When I was going through submissions with To Love A Stranger, the rejections I got – dozens of them – felt like punch after punch after punch in the stomach. Sometimes I hated the whole world. Sometimes I just felt hideously ashamed of myself: how could I produce such terrible work? Obviously it had to be terrible, or the people I was sending it to would want it. And if it was as bad as all that, how could I be so misguided as to think it was good?
Rejection can be profoundly painful. It can be humiliating. It can make us want to crawl into the back corner of the smallest closet we can find, and stay there until the sun falls out of the sky. We wonder why we put ourselves through this. Especially because, as writers, many of us are introverted people who don’t like opening ourselves up to the possible judgment of others, and yet we have to do it all the time with our words. We wonder how we can keep doing it.
It’s important to remember that if we’re sending a piece out, it’s because we believe it needs to be shared. That thought kept me going many times with my book. I didn’t always believe it was good, or that I could write it the way it deserved to be written, but I did believe it was a story that needed to be told and heard. Eventually, I also knew that even though I couldn’t write it perfectly – whatever that would mean – I was still the only person who could tell it in this particular way. If it was going to make it out into the world, it would be because I saw it through.
It’s also true that the more we put ourselves through rejection, the easier it gets. When I first started submitting short stories, every one of those rejections felt deeply personal, too. These days, after years of submitting and countless rejections, they’re a matter of course. If I’m confident in a story, I know it’ll eventually find a home. Maybe it’ll just take a while.
If you believe in something you’ve written, if you know it deserves to be shared and heard, hold tight to that belief. Because you’re right.
“You don’t understand. I would rather count all the dust particles in my house, and organize them by colour and shape, than sit down at my computer/typewriter/notebook ever again, EVER.”
This one relates to both #1 and #2 above; the ideas of writing with persistence and finding your writing rhythm. The other side to rhythm and persistence is knowing when to let yourself recharge: when you’ve really gotten to the limit of your energy and pushing on is more likely to hurt than help.
I’ve found that if I feel stuck, and I’ve tried to get the ideas to come out and they refuse, the best thing I can do is give my mind a break and give my hands and body something else to do. My two favourite go-to activities are exercise – usually walks or swimming – and playing the piano.
Both of those helped me many times when I was writing To Love A Stranger. The book’s two main characters are both musicians, so when I sat at the piano, I could imagine one or the other character playing or listening to whatever piece I was practising. Often, the music would give me an “in” to the story that I couldn’t find any other way. Another routine I had, when I was writing the first full draft of what became the finished book, was that I would write a single page first thing in the morning, and then go to the YMCA and swim laps. The lifeguards usually had a radio on at the pool. While I went up and down the lane, the music on the radio would combine with the predictable physical motion of swimming and set my mind free. Plot solutions presented themselves in the water.
It’s important to know when your mind needs a break. It can also be very helpful to plan some kind of recharging activity into your writing days, so that you’re never running completely on empty. Every writer will have different go-tos for getting the juices flowing again. Explore what works for you, and embrace it.
A friend and fellow writer once told me that the only thing worse than writing is not writing. I think she’s right. Sometimes, when we’re going down the long, twisty, bumpy road that the writer’s path so often is, we get down to our last fumes, and our tires are flat, and there isn’t another rest stop for miles. But even then, we don’t give up on the whole business. We can’t, because the hope of the road unwinding ahead is better than the certainty of where we are in that moment, and because, in the end, this journey calls us. We can’t turn our backs on it. Given the choice, we wouldn’t try.
Hang in there, travellers and friends. We’ll make it.
How do you recharge and get your creative juices flowing again?
For more from Kris Faatz, check out her blog, Zen for Ten.