As a writer, I am a mess.
I’m the sad, shriveled man pulling his hair out to find the right word. I’m the brow-furrower staring down the blinking cursor and the blank page. And that internal voice that whispers incantations like “failure” and “doofus”! Gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.
When I was young, the difficulty of writing got me down. After all, you hear romantic stories in writing workshops about prose flowing freely from the scribe’s hand as if possessed by the ghost of Faulkner himself. People throw out writerisms like “It flowed out of me” and “I couldn’t keep up with the words.” And there I was, comparing writing to a wrestling cage match more so than a spiritual journey.
Until I hit upon this quote by the novelist Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
I love that quote because it reinforces what I’d thought all along but was afraid to admit: Writing is hard to do.
The first time I read it, it was like getting permission to flounder. Who says a little struggle has to be bad?
I even take it a step further: When writing is hard, that means you’re doing it right. It means you’re thoughtful, you’re thinking several steps ahead, you’re considering every point of view, and taking into account the impact of a single word.
It goes for writing a novel and it goes for writing marketing copy: This stuff isn’t supposed to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be painful. Here are a few things I do to power through. Call it a list of struggling-writer affirmations.
‘It’s OK to be terrible’
Step No. 1, whether you’re beginning a single project or want to be a career writer: you have to give yourself permission to write some truly embarrassing, utterly despicable garbage.
That’s because every writing endeavor begins with some necessary throat-clearing. So embrace the clichés that want to come out. Write down every last meandering sentence. You have to suffer through the bad knowing that behind it there’s some good stuff waiting to save the day.
And it will. Have faith. The good stuff will follow. You have to crunch through all that boring ice before you reach the fruit-flavored bottom of the snow cone.
‘I am a Thesaurus Rex’
When I’m in a particularly laborious writing session and I get stuck—a particular metaphor won’t come out, for example, or the writing isn’t as rich as I’d like it to be—I read the thesaurus.
Weird? Yes. But it works.
Say I’m writing about teaching and the word “teaching” and the concept itself seem a little flat. I crack open my thesaurus and immediately see words like “illumination” and “enlightenment” and “instillation.” I’m not saying that I’ll use these words necessarily, but seeing them immediately forces me to shift my conceptual grasp of the subject.
Besides finding synonyms, the thesaurus is great for helping you consider more deeply. It helps you dive into the minutiae of a word or concept. It gives you new words that spawn new ideas.
I have an old Roget’s Thesaurus that stinks to high heaven, but I love it.
‘A moving writer is a moving writer’
You hear it all the time: “I need a change of scenery.” Whether or not that achieves the desired effect when you get dumped is up for debate, but there’s something refreshing about changing your surroundings when you’re in the writing doldrums.
When I’m in the office I might be at my desk. I might be in a coworking space or outside on a curb in the parking lot. I might be hiding in a conference room. You could write on a bus, in a park, or (if you really want to be a frustrated writer), go to a coffee shop.
The same goes for switching up your writing apparatus. If you usually type on a computer, do some handwriting. Type on a typewriter. Use the note app on your phone. Dictate into your phone. Write on a wall. Write in chalk on your driveway. Hell, I had a teacher who would do revisions by posting every page on the wall, turning off all the lights, and writing with the aid of a flashlight. She felt it changed her view.
Physical change can help you get unstuck. So, up and at ’em.
‘There’s only one occasion for celebration’
I’m sometimes guilty of premature celebration myself. I write and write and… what’s this? Ooh, that was a good sentence. I like that. Good rhythm, perfect syntax, gets the point across economically. Hooray for me! I shall lean back and have a donut hole to honor this moment.
And in that self-congratulatory instant, I completely lose my thought and my rhythm. When I start again, I’m back to the garbage phase.
The point is, save your back pats for when you’re done. Like, done-done. Draft-finished done. Not because you don’t deserve them, but because moments of self-awareness drain the energy out of the act of writing.
A variant of the celebration syndrome (I’m really guilty of this one) is taking a break to surf the Internet, even if you have the best intentions of doing a little research. Turn off your Wi-Fi and stay offline. We all know how far down that rabbit hole goes.
‘I will keep writing’
This one is simple. Writer’s block exists only when you stop writing. When you’re staring at the ceiling for long periods of time, when you can’t even begin putting words down because you’re second-guessing everything you think, when you spend more time talking about having writers block instead of trying to write—that’s writer’s block.
Now, you may be in your bad-writing stage. That’s fine. But do not stop writing.
Put the pen on the paper, put your hands on the keys, and go.