Friday, October 28, 2016

Step Away from the Manuscript

A popular post from October 2009

by Annette Lyon

I know of writers who claim there is no such thing as writer's block. In a sense, that's true. No matter what the situation, you can sit down, put your hands on the keyboard, and plunk out some words.

But will they be any good?

I've also heard people say that claiming you have writer's block is akin to a plumber saying he's got plumber's block.

To me, that comparison is ridiculous, because a plumber doesn't have to come up with a fresh, new way of fixing a pipe every time. He's got the exact same wrenches and other tools, and a pretty clear-cut list of leaks, clogs, and other issues he'll likely need to fix on any given day.

He doesn't need to find a unique voice, a fresh metaphor, a brand new way to plot a wrench, for Pete's sake. For that matter, if he's good at what he does, he can probably do most of his work without giving it too much thought. He might enjoy a periodic challenge because it's a change in his daily routine.

On the flip side, writers must come up with something new and different each time we sit down. Using the same proverbial wrench every day would be boring or, worse, cliche.

Sure, we can force ourselves to show up at the keyboard, but frankly, sometimes, showing up isn't the best thing to do. Sometimes our creative side needs a break to figure out where we've gone wrong, where to head next, what our character is trying to accomplish, where the plot has gone off into a ditch, what's missing.

And that means walking away from the keyboard.

Paraphrasing an interview I recently read with Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveler's Wife), writers can often solve problems by coming at them sideways, while working on something else creative. She paints and lets her mind drift. She doesn't force herself to think about her characters or story, but sometimes her mind goes there, and her characters decide to come slip into her mind, showing up with their own answers.

I've found the same thing happening when I let go and stop trying to chase the answers down. The more I try to force the story or the characters to face me head-on, they more they elude me just as I'm about to grab hold of them.

But if let them roam free and I do something else with my mind, letting them come to me, I find that eventually, they will.

For me, sometimes that means setting up my sewing machine and tackling the giant pile of mending my children's clothing. Other times it might be cleaning out a closet or pulling out my knitting needles for a new project.

Maybe I'll go on a walk several days in a row to let my brain think all the messy thoughts it wants to and eventually "unkink" and drift.

Often I find answers while driving, but only if I'm alone in the car and I turn off the radio and drive in silence.

In the summers, weeding a garden or mowing a lawn can do the same thing. Or scrubbing a kitchen floor. In the winter, try shoveling snow.

Do the dishes. Hand-washing is particularly effective for overcoming blocks. So is folding laundry.

I know that it's a pain in some ways that so many of these techniques are chores. (Darn it.) But the reality is that they work. You accomplish something without using a lot of mental energy.

That's the key, because you trick your mind: it knows it's getting something valuable done, yet it's not under pressure to be productive by itself, to be "on" and creative.

Therefore, as you work, your mind gives itself permission to play . . . and a tiny part of it drifts (sometimes you aren't even aware that your mind is working) . . . and then it becomes creative (again, you may not even know it) . . . and then WHAM! the answers come.

Sometimes all it takes is a couple of hours of a different activity. Sometimes it's a few days or even a week or two. But it works.

I'm always amazed when the answers show up. They're clear. They're vivid. They sparkle. And they're always something so much better than I could have come up with on my own by forcing my behind to stay in the chair and by pounding out my word count goal for the day.

That's not to say that writing goals don't have their place; they're very effective, and I use them regularly when drafting. But when occasional blocks smack you in the face, pause and take stock.

If you think it's time, step away from the manuscript. Don't feel guilty about doing so.

Wait for the answers to come while you darn a sock or bake a cake.

(If it's chocolate, save some for me.)


Heather B. Moore said...

This helps me with Writer's Block:

My high score is 305 :-)

Jordan said...

I take it you're joking about the chocolate.

Off to play hangman now! (Don't have writer's block. Just bored.)

Laura said...

Also good advice for the revision process. Hmm, that might explain why I've managed to read a couple books, clean out my closet and a few other things.

Even though the manuscript is done, I need a break from it so I can see it better. I don't even want to look at it yet.

Thanks for the thoughts.

Don said...

This explains why my best ideas usually come when mowing the lawn.

And here I thought it was just the exhaust fumes.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

me to be addicted to! I just gave the URL to Zach, and he's playing in the room where I'm supposed to be editing!

Carolyn V. said...

I seem to get ideas when I'm running on my treadmill. I should do it more often (getting ideas I mean. Okay - and the treadmill).

Cindy Beck said...

Good advice. Thanks for posting it. Washing dishes works for me. Unfortunately, it's hard to write down notes about what popped into your brain while your hands are all soapy! :)

Kimberly said...

So well put.

For me the key is to take a step away from the manuscript and my life as well. Leave the house. See something new. Or look at something old in a new way. Long walks through the woods open my mind in amazing ways, as does people watching on a busy street.

Very thought-provoking post!

L.T. Elliot said...

Great advice--especially for just staying sane in the writing game. Sometimes, I just need a break from my own head.

Nick said...

But if let them roam free and I do something else with my mind, letting them come to me, I find that eventually, they will.

What does that mean? It's from your article.

Julie Wright said...

I clean cupboards. You know I'm stuck in a story when all of a sudden my house is sparkling clean.

Nick said...

You could have done more with the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is vastly larger than the "was/were" concept.

Annette Lyon said...

Nick, I'm not sure what you mean here--my character DO come to me, often completely formed in my head, often with dialogue and characteristics and backgrounds and all kinds of things. I said exactly what I meant. If I let them come to me, they do. If I chase them down, they elude me.

As for subjunctive mood, wrong post. This wasn't about subjunctive mood.

Celise said...

I so agree with this post. More often than not, I wait to "hear the voices in my head" and then I know I can jump back in the story. What's funny is that I'm preparing to write Book 3 in my YA series for NaNoWriMo next month and a co-worker friend of mine is helping me outline the story.

I've never outlined any of my books. Including the first two in this series. Even though we've gotten to Chapter 6, I'm finding it hard to map it out. I'm a pantser by nature and I feel like I'm already getting writer's block with this outline! It's a little crazy.

Terresa said...

Great thoughts here.

While I running my kids to piano lessons and playdates I have a note book with me in my van. I think free floating thoughts about my characters, plot, etc, while I drive around. When I stop for a few minutes in between errands, I jot the ideas down. It may seem nonsensical to some, but for me, I take whatever writing time I can get. I draw inspiration from everywhere. And I've written quite a bit that way.

Heather B. Moore said...

Celise, you are probably a multi-drafter like me. It's almost impossible to outline, and when I try to follow an outline, I get stuck and write slower. Weird.

Paul Greci said...

For me it's helpful to have more than one project going at the same time so when I do hit a snag or a block or just need some space from a particular manuscript, I work on something else.

And yes, I do other things too. Usually movement oriented. A run, a walk, a ski.

Recently I've built a desktop for my treadmill and have been walking while writing to be very productive. It keeps the rest of my body loose and I think that helps free the mind. If you're interested in exploring the walking while writing idea there is a picture of my workspace on my blog. It really has made a big difference for me in terms of productivity.

Celise said...

Heather - yes, I'm a multi-drafter. I can look my stuff over time and time again and find something to change each time. There comes a time when I have to just let it go and get another pair of eyes to look it over.