This guest post by author K.M. Weiland, hosted on the fantastic Jami Gold’s blog, tackles 5 Lies Writers Believe that are Holding them Back, and serves as a great response to some of the issues I’m raising in my blog post below.
Before you say to yourself that this is going to be a post that is stating the obvious or something you already know, hear me out for a bit. For the past decade, I have been banging my head against a wall in trying to figure out why writing has become so much more difficult for me. When I first started writing as a teen, I didn’t have weight of constraints and limitations placed on me by what I like to refer to as The Rulebook Police. It also helped that apart from school, my part-time job, piano lessons, family stuff, and social hangouts with friends, I didn’t have to worry about such “grown-up” issues as paying rent or mortgage money, bills, transit passes and car insurance, employment woes, and so on.
Essentially, even though I started off by reading tons of “how-to” prescriptive writing books and attending a weekly writers’ group, I had free rein in this exploratory phase where I didn’t have any limits and writing fiction was my canvas upon which to paint as freely as I wished. Vampires on different planets? Step right up! My own take on the Russian mob as a screenplay wildly derivative of Goodfellas? Of course! And what about Hamlet with fallen angels as a revenge-driven story? Why the heck not.
In other words, I felt unfettered and although I trained myself to be aware of how to build three-dimensional characters, how to outline plots, and how to write dialogue that (I hoped) rang true, I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. I participated in online critique groups and learned how to provide a good critique. I wrote out and photocopied passages from my favourite books and made notes like “excellent description” or “this is how you do show don’t tell”. Slowly but surely, I had the building blocks to start to get better at this whole writing thing. After workshopping my first novel for three years, I felt a discernible shift–all that hard work was starting to pay off as I felt my skills as a writer sharpening and improving.
I used to have a seemingly never-ending, rich well-spring of ideas that continuously flowed from my mind. There was a time when I carved out project after project through short stories, novellas, and novels. School and work were obnoxious distractions. Writing was my true calling. But then somewhere along the way, I started to get bogged down by edits and critiques. When I sat down to write, my brain cautioned me at every turn with “X critiquer said this was a bad technique, so don’t do that.” My Inner Critic reared its hideous head and let me know that, without exception, all of my ideas were trash, that they were full of cliches, and that someone else had already done what I wanted to do, and executed it far better than I ever could.
At first, this was a minor thing that I learned to work through. But eventually, all I could hear when I sat down and tried to compose anything was “This is garbage. You call this writing? You’re violating Rules X, Y, and Z. Don’t you know them by now?” In fact, my writing hero, Chuck Wendig, did a post about this very issue and although he responded to the debate on the Twitterverse about the whole “Kill Your Darlings” ‘rule’/advice, he turned it into a poignant and effective deconstruction of all the writing rules we’ve heard a billion times: “show, don’t tell,” “never use adverbs,” “write every single day,” and many others that get shared around constantly year after year although writers have thankfully started to question this so-called “golden wisdom” that is positioned as a kind of “Code of Honour for Writers” that should “never” be questioned.
Of course, as life circumstances change, writing becomes more difficult as time goes on. Here’s where you’ll want to chime in with the “tell me something I don’t know” part if you haven’t wanted to already. In my case, some of the chronic conditions I developed early on intensified, and I developed a few new ones for good measure, one of which led to having a visible disability. Where I had once marvelled at why so many writing magazines talked about finding time to write, I now seemed to find myself in that predicament and desperately seeking any answers I could dig up. I reconciled myself to the understanding that carving out writing would only get more challenging as time went on. As someone who has also long been plagued by depression and anxiety, some difficult incidents at writing conventions that I endured also didn’t seem to help matters. Soon, my motivation disappeared and although I did have spurts of inspiration and managed to produce two NaNoWriMo projects, I seemed to have run out of steam. Any ideas I did have shrivelled up before they had a chance to form. Attempts at revising old work also faded quickly. I had stopped “trying” as actively as I had before, but when I did, rejections besieged me. The shame of not having published anything in eight years gripped me, and the same old conversation about quitting writing came up more frequently.
I started to believe that what I had before had been some kind of fluke and that if I ever had what I would need to propel me before as a writer, I lost it somewhere along the way. It feels like a slow-releasing venom that I haven’t realized poisoned me years ago, and it courses through my veins every day, gripping me in a frozen, half-awake sort of state.
Where did it come from?
A writer friend suggested that perhaps the truth of the matter is that writing becomes more difficult as times goes on, period, even for professional writers like Kameron Hurley, who recently discussed her views on the topic for her Locus column. There is no boilerplate, no template, and definitely no set roadmap for fiction as there is for corporate writing pieces such as press releases or market reports. Even though there will always be the same basic foundations–scenes, chapters, sections, beginnings, middles, and ends–each time a writer sits down to carve out a project, no two of them will look the same. Sometimes Plan A turns out to work very well for a particular novel, for instance, but then for the next one, it requires a whole different scheme and so on for the one after that.
So, in the face of all of these obstacles, what’s a writer to do? I think the answer is different for every writer. Sure, we will all experience some version of this during our careers. For some writers, it manifests quickly, and for others like myself, it’s a slow and devastating burn that continues with no end in sight. But what I do know is that there are many paths up the mountain, and they look different for each writer. Just because Path A worked out for someone, it does not mean that following them will lead me to my way to break out.
This topic has also helped me realize that so often, writers are waiting for someone to give them the magic words, or the secret handshake, or that one nugget of advice that’s going to change everything and suddenly make them a more productive writer, or stylistically better, or to sell their books, or to do all kinds of things related to their vision of success. I am guilty of this, as well. It’s like with all of the writing “how-to” books and blogs and tweets and everything else I read, I’m waiting for a Moses-like prophet writer to impart on me this sacred apple from the Tree of Knowledge that will finally allow me to break through everything that’s holding me back from the kind of writing I have been trying to produce for so long but where I keep coming up painfully short.
With no other recourse in sight, we turn to The Rulebook Police and blog after blog discussing “write every day” and “follow this one true path to write very early every morning, and all your problems will be solved” and “write with this very special blanket around you, these golden slippers, balance this egg on your head, and listen to this specific music, write with this specific keyboard, write only using this specific computer and this particular program and then you’ll be able to write.” But relying on such conditions (even exaggerated ones here) is a recipe for unproductivity. That’s where the “write 5 minutes here” and “write while you’re waiting in the car to pick up your kids” and “write while waiting in line at the grocery store” people come in. But for some writers, they can’t just hop in and out of the dedicated concentration mode that is crucial to writing. Different things work for different writers. And if any of the things I’ve described above works for you, then I’m genuinely glad you’ve found it, and I say that without a shred of sarcasm (honest! :-)). I’m still waiting to see if I can find some way to carve this out for me. After having tried many different ways, I continue to look, but I hope I’ll figure out sooner rather than later.
So, after all of this, I continue to grapple with the constant sense of disappointment that hovers over me but also the realization that I have given over far too much power to the “don’t do this or that” Rulebook Police, the raging Inner Critic, and my brain got tired of putting up so much of a fight. Have any of you out there experienced something similar? If so, what have you done to address this in your own writing?