Let’s start at the very beginning: Why Write At All?

Every now and then, I like to go back to my original thought, the one that leads into the maze, and follow Ariadne’s thread to rediscover my purpose.

Your story will be as unique as the snowflake you are...

Your story will be as unique as a snowflake.

When I got started working with writers (as opposed to working on my own writing) it was as an offshoot of being an editor, typesetter, and collaborator/co-writer. In addition to these jobs, I  had been an English major, and I loved history and literature. 

The question of “why I write” never occurred to me in those years, but subsequently, having dealt with many students whose response to a writing prompt was some version of “why bother,” it dawned on me that not everyone had a lust for self-expression; that not everyone was raised to value or desire the need to respond, to have an opinion, to say something.

That was only one problem during the years it took me to get here; another problem was that the writers I worked with, including published writers who I’d assumed had loads of self-confidence, too often told me some version of “I don’t believe in myself enough to do this.” 

Eventually I reached my own crisis of confidence, because I faced the yawning abyss of wanting to write fiction (after having had early work consistently rejected), yet having no credible reason to do so. “Why another piece of fiction,” I muttered to myself on bad days. Why now?  The world is swimming in fiction; surely, another mystery does not have to be written by me.

In fact, this is how I stop myself a lot of the time from writing many things I would otherwise feel compelled to write: someone else has said it already. You might think this is an excuse not to write, and on one level, I’m sure you’re right. It probably is an excuse. But another way of looking at it is that I don’t have to write everything; I do not have to have my thumb in every pie.

I have an opinion about too many things, and many people’s responses through the years have taught me that I really can shut up and let others talk. 

Your voice is distinct and unique.

Your voice is distinct and unique.

The day I decided I wanted and needed to write my mystery story was the day I also decided that the world needs entertainment, and that entertainment, on its own, is not a bad thing. In other words, I gave myself permission to write something that I did not have to write, but nonetheless wanted to write.

Largely, I wanted to write it because no one else has written it yet, or if they have, they haven’t written it the way I want to, from my perspective and research, in my voice.

I had had enough of wandering up and down the aisles of mysteries in Barnes & Noble, never seeing my book already written by someone else, never seeing my own name stuck somewhere, even haphazardly, in the “G’s”. I wasn’t there because I hadn’t written the book that belongs there, and it seemed like no one else was writing it either.

And this is why you should write what you want to write.

It is a truism that “everything’s been said,” but what is more true is that you haven’t had your shot to say it yet. No one has heard you say it, whatever it is, in your voice, from your perspective, in quite the way you would tell the tale.

This is where I could break into lyric song and tell you that you are a unique snowflake, and I will tell you a version of that. You are unique. No one knows the story you want to tell the way you do, and no one will ever tell the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it, which is why you should give yourself permission to write it, whatever it is. 

The world thrives on stories—we need more stories. Human beings absolutely crave stories; it’s how we make order out of what happens to us. Our brains do it each night when we dream—we create narratives, themes, metaphors, and plots to make sense of what happened to us in our lives.

blue and pink snowflake cookiesWe never tire of hearing, reading, or writing stories, narratives of some kind. It is part of who we are, it’s part of how we order our brains. We’ll create a story around a blade of grass if you let us.

Somewhere during my crisis of confidence I was also reading neuroscience about how the brain works, and the power and importance of stories, so it was then that I realised that it wasn’t infantile or useless or unnecessary to write one more story.

One more story, I realised, is exactly what people want and need, and if other people can write the stories they feel compelled to tell, so can I. 

Ultimately, I stopped judging myself for not writing what I should have been writing (which was scholarly and tedious) and began writing what I wanted to write, which requires a lot of historical research, but is fun and is important to me. Eventually, if I ever get it to an agent and/or a publisher, it might see the light of day and mean something to someone else, but that cannot be the reason I write, since “someday” cannot sustain you; it’s too amorphous, too built on fantasy. I have to write because it matters to me, but also because I believe in the story itself, in the need for this story. Without that belief, I was not writing—I was holding myself back because, at the time, I did not believe in the story. 

What story do you need permission to write? Are you giving yourself that permission?

Let me know!

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook schools

Click on the picture to support the National PTA and its quest to help survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary

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Past Tense: A Tale of Overcoming Writer’s Block, And Becoming The Hero Of My Own Journey

I haven’t been able to write a word of fiction for many months, and I have felt pretty tense during my extended writer’s “blank.”

I have focused on every other form of writing instead; mostly blog-writing, note-taking, emails, IM-ing, forums.

I’ve coached writers, written long emails to writers, sat in groups with writers, listened to writers tell me about their writer’s block. I’ve read a stack of how-to books, including books for people with a classic case of writer’s block.

Writers_Write_Mug.jpg.scaled500

How you characterize your inability to write, what you call it, affects how you cope with it.

I immersed myself in historical research, thinking that if only I knew what really happened in that era, I might be able to see the next step for my protagonist.

I did everything you’re supposed to do for writer’s block, short of standing on my head upside down to increase blood-flow to my brain.

The most dispiriting thing I’ve read in this past year was written by the otherwise uplifting Brenda Ueland, who fervently believed that everyone has something to say, and everyone can become a writer.

In her book about writing, originally published in 1938, titled If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, And Spirit, Ueland worries that if the writer is “stuttering,” and isn’t writing over long gaps of time, perhaps she isn’t a writer. Perhaps she should give it up. Perhaps it just isn’t meant to be.

“Except, Brenda,” I whispered back, “I really want to do this.” I whispered, “You know I have always wanted to write a murder mystery.” It’s fun, for one thing, and I like putting the puzzle pieces together in my mind. I like my ‘villain.’ I like my protagonist, crusty and grim though he is. I like my minor characters. I especially like Ancient Greece, where the mystery is set.

So, to sum up, I have been very tense, because the underlying dread of being blocked is “I cannot do this; I do not have what it takes.” Logic has been at war with fear; I know I can do this. I can write fiction, but I have had the devil of a time coming up with the details of my plot.

Here’s the real problem with being blocked, from my experience: The writer flails, and while flailing, begins to drown in his or her own fears that this time, the unholy blankness is permanent. So most writers learn to stay busy, keep their minds and pens occupied, while waiting out this particular “blank.”

I’ve found while working with writers, some of whom are blanked, that there are simple problems that cause what we think of as writer’s block, and there are harder problems. I had to ask myself at one point, what’s the real problem here? It isn’t sufficient to know you’re blanked and use all the traditional methods of trying to fix it.

Your problem might be psychological. Many writers I’ve talked to absolutely hate admitting this. While that’s understandable, due to ego issues, being unwilling to admit you’ve got a problem won’t help fix it, and many writers with psychological blocks give up writing entirely, rather than get help. Your problem might be intellectual. How many writers willingly admit to ourselves we’re not clever enough to pull this off? How hard can this be? we rationalize, and then we cobble something together, hoping it’s good enough to pass muster with our editor, publisher, agent, reading group.

Over time, I’ve learned to characterize the block according to what causes it. In my experience, all blocks can be overcome if you know what’s causing them and get the right kind of help. In my case, this block has been caused by my lack of imagination and no experience writing a mystery. As long as I can see my story in my mind, I can write. When I can no longer see it happening, like watching a movie, I have no idea what comes next.

I began to see my block differently; I began to characterize it as an intellectual challenge, rather than an impenetrable wall I couldn’t find a way around or over.

I wasn’t writing because I didn’t know what should happen next. I wasn’t writing because I haven’t had a good grasp on my overall story, even though I’ve written an outline, even though I know my characters, even though I know the overall picture. I have not adequately understood the story’s overall purpose, and so my writing, to quote Ueland, “stutters.”

This is a great model, up to a point.

This is a great model, up to a point.

One way of fixing a plot-related blank (when you don’t know the next thing that should happen) is to read a lot in your genre, if only to steal ideas. I have done that; in fact, I have spent years focusing on my genre, reading only what pertains directly to my plot, so as to get ideas from other, more experienced, fiction writers.

I have found you can research your period extensively and still not be  inspired. Inspiration is the key; something has to fill your mind with story.  “Story,” as in, the basic building block pieces of “once upon a time,” and “then what happened?” that prompt curiosity in the reader’s mind, is what fuels fiction. By reframing my approach to my story, I have regained inspiration, but I had to wait for just the right book to come to me.

I had forgotten how important not only plot, but also, deep structure, is to the overall design of your story’s architecture. I’d gotten lost in the question “what happens next,” instead of seeing the larger picture of what this story is supposed to accomplish each step of the way. Staying true to that inner sense of purpose is part of what I have discovered is called the Hero’s Journey, and it comes with rules more comprehensive than knowing how your protagonist responds to his antagonist, or his deuteragonist, for that matter.

This story continues in the next post…

 

Online Courses Available Through The Collaborative Writer

Welcome to online courses available only to members of The Collaborative Writer! For information on how to become a member, please contact me at collaborativewriter@gmail.com or visit The Collaborative Writer. Course details are available on the new Collaborative Writer Online Courses site.

I’m extremely pleased to offer these classes to you, which you can take at your own pace. There’s no rush to finish; the goal is to learn more about yourself while your creativity and self-expression is encouraged.

Courses are available only to members, who will require a password to log-in. Please contact me to become a member, and to receive your password.

Participants of classes should send their responses, answers and questions to me via email, which is collaborativewriter@gmail.com.

Course members can communicate with each other via the comments feature on each page. All participants are listed on left sidebar, so you will know who is here. Learning is ongoing, and there will be multiple classes you can enroll in. Courses will be added to over time; contact me if you have any questions or need a specific type of class or one-on-one tutoring.