Journeys of the Mind, #1. What to do when writing goes awry

img_9948Being a writer is something I have always wanted to do. When I was little, I used to spend hours telling myself stories. I lived in the worlds I made up for myself almost more than I lived in the real world; I travelled the paths of my characters far more than I travelled any path of my own. I loved in particular to tell stories of great journeys and voyages.

And so, when I was given the task of writing the story of a journey, as part of a creative writing module I am currently taking in University, I might have expected it to be my perfect assignment, literally going back to my child’s-play.

Far from it: It plagued me all week. I spent several hours yesterday, struggling first with one version of a story; then a different one. I felt completely unfocused; I was bringing up Google every ten minutes to look for new music to listen to, or to look up videos, recipes, or, heaven help us, to go on Instagram.

Every sentence that I wrote was squeezed out of me by force. I kept going out of sheer pig-headedness, knowing that I would have to hand something up at the end of the week. After four hours of decidedly Interrupted Writing, I had written about 2000 words, all of which I disliked.

Days like this are both extremely painful, and quite familiar, I think, to any creative person who is making work on a daily basis. The ease of distraction, with the internet at one’s disposal, no doubt makes it easier to fall into this unpleasant sensation of working away and never feeling as though you are fully in the work.

My main problem was that I was bored. Sometimes a story, no matter how much it sounds like a good story in my head, does not feel right and bores me.

Everything in writing creatively, for me comes back to knowing and loving the people I’m writing about. I think this is probably similar for other creative work – knowing and loving the subject, whatever that may be, has to come before any fixed idea on the surface look or structure. In this case the stories felt too unreal – I did not know the characters well enough, so I was not really invested in what happened to them.

It was therefore hard labour to imagine each new event. I had to actively come up with each detail, each word and gesture that was spoken, and everything I come up with this way tends to feel stilted and wrong, even when it’s the most natural thing I can imagine. Writing in this way is truly exhausting.

Sometimes days like that are necessary, painful as they are. Sometimes it takes an amount of tortured persistence to realise that there is an issue with what you are trying to create.

Eventually, there might emerge some way to resolve the issue – or to try something completely different.

The next morning, I sat down in a café around the corner, took out my notebook and a pen, instead of working on a laptop. And I just began to write about my grandfather, his love of journeys, and his eccentric travelling habits.

This time it was very different: the words flew out, and I wrote with ease and delight.

I was finished the first version in an hour. I certainly can’t vouch for the result being anything remotely wonderful, but I know that I enjoyed writing it far, far more than what I had done previously.

There are three main things, I think that one should keep in mind when coming up against these sorts of blockages.

The first is not to give up too quickly. This used to be a problem for me and still is a lot – to stop the moment I become irritated or annoyed by how bad my writing is – this only, in my experience, leads to a pile of unfinished bad writing.

The second is to know when to change things – don’t prolong the agony of fighting with something that is simply not going to work out. For me, consistent boredom with a piece of writing is its death sentence.

The third is to keep note of what works and what does not. You might find something interesting about our overall strengths and weaknesses, what kind of writer, photographer, painter or artist are you? What kind of work comes out as naturally as breathing, and when does every tiny detail feel like a struggle –what does a rewarding struggle feel like, compared to a pointless one?

If anyone out there has any favourite things to do when things are simply not working in their writing – I would love to hear from you! What do you do? Is there any way to avoid these times, or do we just have to suffer through it?

 

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