Pencils scratched against paper as the group of writers began the writing exercise. There were early-on glimpses back and forth, pauses as each snuck glances at the others’ notebooks to judge their progress against their colleagues. One of them writing with a purple felt tip pen on pink notebook paper—a romance novelist, no doubt—started quickly and never stopped.
Another writer with a nibbled eraser also got off to a quick start but faltered, scrubbed out his paragraph and then looked flustered as he tried to come up with another topic. One more, who was mostly a poet but dabbled erratically in narrative, stared at the ceiling, connecting the dots on the ceiling as he connected words in his mind. Only as the timer wound down towards done did he unleash his creative progress on the page in a furious burst.
Most of them struggled through, bit by bit, word by word, pausing between sentences as they tried to figure out what was next, and then finally dwindling to a close.
I have a life-long addiction to blank books. Spiral-bound notebooks, composition books, floppy-sided moleskins, handbound journals with covers of exotic paper, carved leather or jewel-toned fabrics—it doesn’t really matter. Apparently, my philosophy is that there isn’t a writing problem that can’t be cured by a new blank book.
(Incidentally, this is an addiction I seem to have passed on to both my daughters.)
Combined with my obsessive compulsion to save every little bit of writing I’ve ever produced, you can imagine the boxes I’ve got packed away stuffed with old, half-filled journals and notebooks. It’s always an adventure to pry one open and flip through the contents and see what “treasures” they contain. It’s not uncommon to uncover something I’ve no memory at all of writing, inciting a response of, “I wrote this?!?” with some degree of either horror or glee.
The above snippet, for example, I just found in a book I used briefly a couple years ago as a writing journal. I don’t remember writing it, I don’t remember if it was from a published prompt or entirely out of my own head. There is practically no punctuation in the draft, and I smoothed out the prose in one or two places as I transcribed it, but otherwise it’s exactly as it came out of my head that day I wrote it. It’s no work of genius, certainly, but I rather like the rhythm of it, and the suggestion of developing characters that emerge in just a few short lines.
I’ve been struggling a lot with writer’s block lately, and though I have a pretty good understanding of the reasons behind the block, it’s not so easy to overcome them. While I fully subscribe to the “butt-in-chair” philosophy, it isn’t doing the trick for me, because my butt is in the chair, and my fingers are on the keyboard, quite a lot of the time. But when I write, I am not enjoying what I write, and that kills the whole process. You know those writers who say that that it’s not writing that we enjoy, but having written? That’s not true for me; I usually do enjoy the actual writing part, though I confess I take the greatest pleasure from reading something I know I’ve written well.
That’s simply not the case lately. Every sentence, every word, brings on an agony of indecision. I doubt myself, you see? And that doubt bleeds into whatever I write so that even the pleasure of reading what I have written is diminished because I don’t like most of what actually ends up on the page. I’m in a place where I cannot enjoy either the process or the product.
“Write through the pain” seems to be the general prescription offered for writer’s block, but perhaps you can see why this isn’t a medicine that is easy to swallow right now. If you are already struggling with doubt, why engage in something that will likely only confirm those doubts?
I am not writing this post to seek advice, consolation or confirmation (though I am sure some of you will offer both, for which I thank you in advance). It’s more of a statement of where I am right now, because in describing a problem for others I often happen upon the solution. (In fact, that same writing journal which has the above quoted exercise also has this piece of advice: The solution to the problem is in the problem. If you are having difficulty in finding a solution…go back to clarifying and enlarging one’s understanding of the problem.)
So that’s what I’m doing. Is it working? I think what I know now that I didn’t know when I started this post that what I am missing from the process of writing is joy, so at least that is some place to start. How can I recover that simple joy of writing that has been with me for as many years as I can remember, until now? Are writing exercises the answer? I’ve never found much satisfaction in them before, so I can’t imagine that’s the answer. Perhaps devoting time to poetry? Or some other short-form project?
Or maybe I should delve into all those old journals and notebooks…dig up the treasures that lie within, pull them into the light and polish them up, see if there’s anything worth salvaging. Is there anything my 30-year-old self knew that I’ve forgotten in the last ten years? What about my 20-year-old self, or my 15-year-old self? Oh….yes. The idea of this project has a definite appeal to me. I don’t know if it will solve my problem or not, but at least it will give me something to focus on for a little while, other than the various novel and short story projects that have been floundering lately. And maybe, just maybe, it will restore some of my lost self-confidence as a writer.
Perhaps this is the a reason I’ve been saving all that old writing for the last 25 years…
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