I’m sitting in the library classroom at our university, where I teach my Narrative Writing class. The final exam is scheduled for 7:30 Wednesday morning, but I have offered to let students take the final exam this morning and get it out of the way. One caveat: they have to have their final project done when they come in for the final exam. What’s the final project? They are to write the first 50 pages for a novel, along with a storyline for the entire book.
For those who have written books before, the first 50 pages is no big deal. But for those who haven’t, it is monumental. Yesterday I had one of my students stop me in the library and ask me what to do about writer’s block. Trouble is, I have several answers for that. It comes down to what the problem is caused by. Is it a lack of ideas, too many other thoughts vying for our attention, or just a fear that our writing isn’t good enough? Each of them has a different solution.
If you have other things competing for your attention, say that essay for History that you need to finish, then by all means, finish it first. I tend to try to get everything out of my way and off my desk before I start writing. When I have a dozen projects vying for my attention, I get the easy stuff done first, then it is easy to concentrate on the big stuff. My boss and colleague says I am a very good multi-tasker, but that has come by necessity. It’s not about doing many things at once–I hate that–but getting stuff off the plate so I can concentrate on the big stuff.
If you have a lack of ideas, take a break and recharge your batteries. Student writers wonder why there is so much emphasis put on reading. Here’s why: reading not only shows you techniques and masterful mastery (like that one?) of characterization and dialogue, but it also give you ideas that you can steal and use as your own. The same goes for movies. One of my famous sayings is: “Every great idea I ever had I stole from someone else.” Solomon put it this way: “There is nothing new under the sun.” And that’s the truth. Pick up any recent great book and you will find a retelling of some story that may go all the way back to the Greeks–or before. It’s a matter of putting old wine in new wineskins.
If you have writer’s block because your mind keeps canceling out your ideas before they can be born, or you just can’t write that first sentence, then it’s your own fault. Cut yourself some slack. As I tell my students, give yourself permission to write “the crap draft.” Most of the time, going ahead and writing crappy stuff can lead to some pleasant surprises. Sometimes you look at your writing, and yes, it truly is horrible. But other times you will find, after you let it sit, that hey, it’s not as bad as I thought.
The student who stopped me in the library said that her problem was that she knew where she wanted to go with her story, but that she didn’t know how to get there. I told her to just push through it. Write the stuff, even if it isn’t the best that you’ve written. When you get to the other side, often you either see an easier way to get there, and can redo it, or you find that what you did was the best thing after all.
It’s like an obstacle course that you have to run through. When you get done, you look back and can see routes that you should have taken, and overall it doesn’t look as difficult as you remember it. But on the other hand, people are paying you to see you run it.
Writing isn’t easy, especially good writing. That’s why people pay to read your stuff. You get paid to take something that is difficult and make it seamless and articulate, appearing as if the story had always been just as they are reading it. Readers don’t know how much blood, sweat and tears goes into writing a book, and for the most part, they don’t care. They just want to enjoy the ride.
And it’s your job to give it to them, one way or another.