Having worked with hundreds of
writer-clients and having written quite a few books myself, I can honestly say that we all share the same syndrome: fear of writing. As Douglas Adams’ well-known quote goes, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Unfettered, this fear can drive people away from writing and many never return. After all, it is easier to do a thousand other things than to sit down to write.
Here are some hard truths and some good tips that can help any writer get “unstuck.”
· Set yourself limits. Yes, it’s okay to be afraid but there comes a time when you need to tiptoe into the water. Set a timer to limit your dilatory behaviors, finally admit that the undersides of the sofa cushions are as clean as they are ever going to get, and sit down at your desk. And let’s remember what Anne Tyler had to say: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”
· Set yourself a quota. We all have romantic visions of how writers write—in garrets, through the night, sipping on absinthe. All very bad for your health. Don’t be ruled by inspiration. For some, inspiration may come in a gorgeous wave that breaks the shore and all is beautiful. For most, inspiration comes in little dribs from a medicine dropper. I have found that it is best to capture those dribs in the context of a quota. So, depending on how often you’re planning to write—three days a week, four hours at a stretch, or whatever—set yourself a quota that makes sense for such a regimen. Even 100 words a session can start to add up.
· Understand why you’re writing. You’re not writing to create art or literature. If that comes to pass, excellent. You’re writing for the same reasons that people have been writing throughout history: to connect with other people; to better understand something in the past; to arouse; to amuse; to confess; to forgive; to preserve a tradition or a folkway; to project into the future, and a variety of other concrete reasons. Gaining clarity around your goal is eminently helpful.
· Understand your audience. If you are writing with the idea of sharing your work, then it is good to know who will be reading your work. Children, women, men, the elderly, investors, sports fans, —these are all discrete constituencies who obviously have considerable overlap, but if you can figure out who you are trying to reach, then the reaching might be easier.
· Be forgiving. We are all capable of bad writing and misfires. It happens to the very best of us. And, bitterly and unfairly, we can all be accused of bad writing even when we’re not guilty. Le Figaro said about Madame Bovary in 1857 that, “M. Flaubert is not a writer.” The Saturday Review in 1925 called The Great Gatsby “an absurd novel.” So it is important to know that writing comes with some built-in pain, and there is absolutely no reason for you to be the one inflicting pain on yourself. Treat yourself kindly and move on.
· Reward yourself. One of the best ways to get “unstuck” is to write for a living. The need for a paycheck is an excellent extrinsic motivator and cashing your check may be all the reward you need. Those who are not dependent on writing for a living, however, should still remember to reward themselves. Just looking at something you have written and feeling that it works is a pretty sweet reward, but don’t forget to also do something nice for yourself after a tough work session. A walk with the dog, a swim, or an hour sitting with someone else’s good book is much warranted.
Most importantly, understand that really good writing can happen anywhere, anytime. If you hop off that theme park ride called “success,” you can write at your own pace, for your own reasons, and you can create something quite wonderful that may only touch the lives of few, but that can touch those lives profoundly.
Alan Gelb is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others. Learn more at www.havingthelastsay.com
Special note: In honor of "What will be your legacy?" Month, we're giving away one free copy of Alan's book by (random drawing) to one lucky reader who comments on this post.