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A vague confession, with questions.

It’s often said that the blank page can be intimidating, overwhelming, unkind, etc. And then there is the writerly belief that at some point, the work finds its stride, its shape, and the agony of creation gives way to a sort of euphoria. Afterward, minutes or hours or days later, there is the ending to contend with, whereupon the last line will either announce itself or be hard-won or will come as the result of deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise) or fierce edits or suggestions, etc. My relationship with my ‘process’ used to be a known thing to me–how I started, how I continued, and how I put it to bed. These days,  I feel completely at a loss, almost as though I’m writing as somebody else, but was not otherwise given somebody else’s elseness. I’m bored, filled with doubt, and mostly hating every word I get down–and more than that, I feel not in possession of my regular faculties, which hitherto have done a decent job alleviating the boredom, quelling the doubts, and mellowing the hatred. It’s not as though I’ve never felt detached or lost before, but somehow this feels different. I’m quite sure that it has to do with the fact that I finished something some months ago which had previously given a lot of shape and focus to my efforts, over a pretty broad expanse of time. And while I’m a good multi-tasker in life, I’m a monogamist when it comes to writing. This is probably a grave liability. It’s something I’d like to change.

I’m aware that this rather tumultuous lull that I’m finding myself in is probably a good, “necessary” thing in its own rite. And before this entry gets even more me me me there are some questions that I’d like to ask all of you, which is the real reason I’m posting. When you begin something new, how do you do it? (And I’m gearing this more toward fiction writers, I realize.) Do you have a full sense of where you’d like to end up? Are you certain of anything–an image, a phrase, a character–and do you build the rest around it/them? Do you have your first line before you sit down, or do you think and stare until one comes to you? Do you say to yourself, “I’m going to write a such-and-such kind of story”? I never cared too much about how other people wrote–unless they were famous, no offense–until I started feeling like I had no idea how I wrote. I’m looking for general habits and patterns that I can pit against my own adriftness.

(Thank you.)

9 thoughts on “A vague confession, with questions.

  1. i think this happens, especially after working on something long and real focused, like you mention. maybe write short, quick piece. read some new exciting work. it’ll all come back. i had a similar thing after about a year and a half period of heavy writing, ending about last month. i wrote a novel and ten or twelve stories. this past month, i was just out out out. empty of everything. all the words i put down felt boring, old, too easy. i think this is two things: one, it’s that you’ve done a lot of work, and two, it may be time to push it someplace new, where you haven’t gone yet. it’s frustrating and sucks, but so promising i think.

  2. I have so many of the same feelings that you do, and I’ve often wondered about the process that others go through to get something down on paper. It’s rare that I begin with an entire plot mapped out from beginning to end. I usually start with an image. Something that moved me during the day, a conversation I overhead, and then I set about creating a character based on that image. I have SO many stories that I’ve started that have never found an ending because of that very fact. I’m playing with other forms of inspiration — an ending first, a climax, but I continuously find it almost impossible to sit down with a blank sheet of paper (blank Word document) and effortlessly (!) spill out something I’m proud of. It’s good to hear that others haven’t been dipped in magic.

  3. To break lulls, I sometimes consciously attempt to break routine/alter variables. For instance: if I’ve been working mostly in the mornings with coffee at the kitchen table, I chain myself to my desk in the evening with a beer, and write.

    It sounds a little silly, I know. But if I’m shifting projects in a big way, I sometimes find that something as simple as a different time of day/location can provide the jump I need to get the ball rolling. (And sometimes, after that jump, I’ll slip back to a more standard routine.)

    I admire your monogamy!

  4. Kristen, I got excited by one particular thing you wrote that you should see as an opportunity: “I’m writing as somebody else, but was not otherwise given somebody else’s elseness.” That’s a scary and beautiful place to be. I think we can only create great stuff when if gets out of our control and little and becomes bigger than our own ideas. You want to be scared and confused by your own work. Somebody recently quoted Gordon Lish (and this site is full of people who know WAY more about Lish’s ideas than I do), who said something about your work not working when you feel like you’re producing your best stuff (John M., can you give us an exact quote?). I think it becomes too controlled, too contained.

    You know what I always say about getting started – go and draw a picture. Or a a whole bunch of pictures about a boy who lives at the circus!

  5. For a variety of reasons, it’s been a year since I’ve begun a new project. Going too long without writing shatters me, and since I’ve cleared off much of what has been distracting me, I’m trying to gain focus and begin something new. It’s really hard. I’m circling around it, putting it off. I know sort of what I want to write, but there’s a massive gulf between those images, vague as they are, and the concrete sentence that needs to be written for anything to begin. It’s ultimately a leap of faith, and this leap, to extend the metaphor, requires a few steps back, then a long build-up of a run, a powerful projection into darkness.

  6. these are lovely comments. shya, you’re right, i think. i failed to mention the “circling around”/”putting it off” components of this state in which i’m finding myself. sometimes it just feels like torture to sit down and try, and there are so many other things to click around that it’s easy to be too easy on myself. there’s that quote–who said it?–i don’t like writing, i like having written, or some such?

    woods, yes and yes. i’d like to believe that what you’re saying is true. maybe it’s time for us to do another collaboration? i like your drawings better than mine, but i’d gladly come up with some text about our circus boy.

    joseph, yes. i think that can be very helpful. i try switching coffee shops. new settings can be enlivening.

    mimi, the “spilling out” is quite rare for me, too. we should try just letting ‘er rip for 20 minutes and see what comes out on the page.

    alan, i think/hope you’re right.

  7. Hi Kristen,

    I finished a big novel project in early 2009, and while I went right back to working on other projects, I found that I really needed to work on things that were totally different. So I wrote some short stories that were lightyears away from the novel. I used the opportunity to explore a variety of different writing styles, things I’d been meaning to work on for a while. That worked out pretty well for me. …Although I did write one short story that was similar to the novel (in terms of style), just so I’d have a shorter example of what I’d done in the bigger project.

    I’m a huge fan of doing writing exercises, playing games, trying out constraints, breaking fixed habits. When nothing is going right for me, I read it as a sign that I need to be doing something different. I believe very strongly in only following what feels good, and avoiding what feels bad, when it comes to writing. (The writing should be challenging, and feel like work, but it should be energizing work.)

    I’ve found that when I try different styles, I always gain something, and never really lose anything. I just become able to do different things. (Which still isn’t much, but…)

    For what it’s worth. Good luck with your writing!

    Cheers, Adam

    P.S. This reminds me that I really want to do a week or series of posts where a bunch of us discuss our writing “tics” (our unshakable habits), and then try to trade them.

  8. This is a really important clutch of questions–thanks for starting the discussion, Kristen.

    Here are some tips from Walter Benjamin:

    I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

    II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

    III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

    IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

    V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

    VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

    VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

    VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

    IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks.

    X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

    XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

    XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

    XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

    “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” One-Way Street, 1928

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