If You Can’t Write Anything Useful, Don’t Write Anything at All

It’s popular, in some circles, to deny the existence of writer’s block.

Butt in chair! Don’t wait for the muse! Treat writing like a job! they say.

They’re mostly right. Writers can usually conquer the blank screen by typing words in succession, asking ourselves what if? and then what happened? We can work ourselves out of a jam. That is, if we’re writing fiction.

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You know when this “just do it” stuff doesn’t work–at least for me? When it comes to blogging.

I think the reason for this is that the blogging world has become so crowded that, if you do have a blog  and you want people to read what you write, you feel an enormous pressure to say something useful. Give readers a takeaway, an actionable step.

Right now.

I see a lot of bloggers copying other bloggers’ “useful ideas,” almost verbatim, because they’ve bought into this idea that the appearance of added value is more important than any sort of originality or creativity. The way to get readers, they’ve been told, is to do how-to posts.

  • Short ‘n’ sweet
  • Bullet points.
  • Two picture minimum.
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I, for one, cannot force myself to say something useful. Sometimes I do, but it’s often by accident. So I stare at the blank screen. I can’t think of a single thing to say that someone hasn’t already said.

This is not useful. There is nothing to take away.

But it’s true.

Writing While Furious

There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.

Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.

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One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.

This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.

 

A Soft Answer

So much of life is about getting down to business, doing the work, not waiting for inspiration in order to accomplish tasks, etc, etc. This is true in our jobs and in our parenting.

Also? Our creative pursuits won’t find expression if we don’t commit to them. We know we have to Just Do It.

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But sometimes you “need” to do something, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing it–as in you actually cannot make yourself start the thing in the first place. Even though you know the sinking feeling is only your weak mind keeping you from being disciplined. It’s Resistance, you tell yourself, as if naming it will pull out its eye teeth or something.

I’m a Christian, not a Buddhist. But I like what this guy has to say about gently accomplishing the thing you really want to get done in a day. Just that thing and nothing more. Just that thing, while breathing and letting yourself find joy in the moment you’re doing it. Just that thing, while not being driven by anxiety and dread.

So will I work on novel edits today? Will I smile at Resistance instead of trying to trick or outrun it?

Could be. Yeah, maybe I will.

 

*photo by my creative, procrastinating son

On Nothing

It’s been a long time since I’ve stared down a blank page and been unable to type a single word. Usually I out-write (outwit?) my brain and clickety-clack the keys until something bubbles to the surface. Then I erase 57% of what I wrote. Until today.

Today, I balance my laptop on my legs and watch college students in see-through leggings try to wiggle into class after the professor has locked the door. It’s awkward, so I look back at my white screen, and then I look down at the rose gold phone I hate to love to see if I have any notifications.

Notifications for an app I downloaded against my will (I hate apps). My sister begged me to get it because it lets us video chat each other, and we can change our voices, which makes saying things like, “I’ve been sitting so long I can’t feel my hips” super fun because we sound like men in drag. So I had to get it.

I wait for the college students to saunter off, and then I send my sister a video and say, “Give me something to write about. I’m starting to get desperate” in a helium voice. I wait for her to send something back, but it seems she’s busy watching her kids go down the slide at some park.

I look back at the screen and shift a little. I really can’t feel my hips.

So I do a couple of squats and write about nothing.

 

On Teaching Students (and Myself)

I teach writing to high school students. Yesterday was our first day back to class, and I gave my freshman a little assignment to start things off. Nothing heavy. Just a topic sentence derived from something about which they already know a lot and three sentences that support it.

Everyone knows something about something, I said. You can write about Fortnite.

I could tell within a few minutes which of my students will fight the writing process this year, and which won’t.

That seems a little presumptive, you say. You don’t know them yet.

Right, but–here I go again with my groups–there are two kinds of students : 1). the kind that dive in and try, haltingly, maybe, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing, and 2). the kind that stare at the teacher in mental anguish (or boredom).

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I have compassion for these kids. There was a time when I didn’t because I taught what I wasn’t doing on a daily basis–i.e. staring down a blank page and pushing past the nothing.

Now I know how hard it is.

It’s going to be okay, I want to tell my kids. There is no way out but through. You will learn by doing, by giving yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. It will hurt, but it will make you better.

(You might even like it).

I will say all of those things, and more, probably. Most of my students won’t believe me, and that’s okay. We learn through experience. And, sometimes, we don’t notice the learning because it happens while we’re trying to escape our own weakness.

But it happens.

 

The End of the Beginning (or the Beginning of the End)

Last night, I finished the first draft of my current novel. After I typed the last words, I hit save, closed my laptop, and stared at my closet doors.

From my writing perch, AKA my bed, I thought about all the hours I’d spent creating this story. It was six months of good/hard//exhausting.

And now it’s time to leave story world and become Ruthless Editor.

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I wanted to do something to celebrate getting over this big hurdle, but I didn’t want to get out of my pajama pants, so I told my husband and kids to get ice cream and live it up without me.

How did I celebrate? By watching an Alfred Hitchcock Hour on YouTube by myself.

And now, to kill my darlings.

On Not Having a Plan (Or How Not to Quit Before You’ve Started)

Blogging is kind of like writing a novel.

Wait, I said kind of.

When you’re trying to nail down an idea for a story, one that will resonate with readers and have enough heft to be worthy of all those pages, your brain tells you to quit immediately. It tells you your ideas are, at best, lame, and, at worst, absolute garbage.

It’s not so different when you’re trying to think of things to blog about. I mean, really. What do people care if you can’t stop missing your grandmother–the one who wrestled with pancreatic cancer and taught you how to die? Or about the grit it takes to keep working on a project, day after day, when you have no guarantee it will end up being interesting or good. Or that when your Taiwanese neighbor collapsed suddenly two weeks ago, it changed your life.

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So, okay–

If I were to write a post about the top ten ways to manage your mornings, I might get some views. But I’m not interested in telling adults how to get things done because 1). they’re adults, and 2). everyone is doing what they can to get along.

Some experts say if you can’t think of ideas for your blog, you shouldn’t have one. That makes total sense. Except I write novels, and I know that if I were to quit because I don’t always know what I’m doing or because ideas slip out of my grasp like greased eels, well, I’d never write.

I’d never write.

Maybe you want to write, but the you feel like you can’t nail down a plan. I say, sit down and blog about the process of not knowing until things come into focus. Even if you’re the only one who reads your work (plus that one follower in Finland), you’re moving in the right direction.

Finishing What I Started

There are two kinds of people: those who group the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

I’m in the first group.

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There are two kinds of people: those who have a hard time starting something and those who have a hard time finishing.

I can start novels all day long. What kills me is the follow-through, the big ending. There’s something scary about putting a period at the end of the last sentence.

In anything. In life.

When I was in my early twenties, I became a mother for the first time. I was excited to see those two pink lines on the pregnancy test because I had no idea what I was in for. After we finished the last childbirth class (that I’d forced my young husband to attend), I ugly-cried in a sub shop, a bite of dill pickle in my mouth.

“I can’t do this. I cannot,” I said.

“Do what?”

“Give birth.”

“But…you have to,” my husband said, blinking slowly, watching for any sudden movements across the table.

“I know.”

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I got pregnant two more times after that. Each time, I was jazzed, puke and all. In those early days, labor and delivery shimmered in the mist as future realities. I knew they were coming, but I didn’t acknowledge them.

(How big a cliché is it to compare writing a novel to pushing out a baby? I don’t care. It’s a cliché because it works).

I know women who hate actual pregnancy and live for the day they can hold their kid in their arms. They are finishers.

Then there are those of us who love the idea of things, the big-picture joy of the undefined future. We wish things could stay in the realm of possibility. We are starters.

Of course, one of the big differences between delivering a baby and finishing a novel is that, when it comes to writing, you have a choice whether to get it done or not. After all, you can’t exactly put off giving birth until you feel more inspired.

Or can you? Because I would have…

For me, choosing to see a project through is the hardest part. I tell myself I’ve done it before. I can do it again.

And I will.