Playing with Blocks

After the post two weeks ago, Debz asked about writer’s block and ways to overcome it. Also, a friend has asked about self-loathing in connection with writer’s block.

Self-loathing first, I always say.

Several months ago I applied for admission to an advanced poetry workshop and sent along six of my poems that I like a lot. I was rejected. The professor takes only ten students. The woman who gave me the bad news said that sixty people had applied, which wasn’t much comfort. Six million applicants would have been comfort, a little.

The rational one percent of my brain told me that this teacher wasn’t right for me, that the rejection was fortunate because I shouldn’t study with someone who didn’t appreciate my work. The rest of me felt bad, and all of me didn’t write a single poem for a month, although I had one bubbling up in me. I certainly wasn’t punishing the teacher, who didn’t care if I never wrote my kind of poems ever again. I was punishing myself for not being good enough. That’s a dose of self-loathing.

Yesterday I wrote a poem, and not a revenge poem either. I’m past the self-loathing for now, although I have set aside a dab of other-loathing for the teacher who rejected me.

Time helped me get past the self-loathing, and understanding what I was doing to myself also helped. Anyway, self-loathing, in my opinion is one of the hardest feelings to bear, much worse than clean, blistering anger. Understanding why I’m mad at myself is usually the cure, but sometimes I just have to tough it out and wait for the spell to pass, which so far it always has.

I have never gotten the kind of writer’s block where I can’t write a word – hope I never do – but I can get stuck in a story and not know where to go next. This can happen when I can’t tell the story I want to tell. For example, in Fairest I wanted a lot of the story to be about the insecure queen, Ivi, and the ways the evil creature in the mirror uses her insecurity to manipulate her. I wanted to show evil at its evilest, at its most insinuating. This Ivi-mirror element made it into the book, but very thinly, nothing like what I had in mind. I couldn’t tell that plot thread fully. Maybe someday I’ll be able to, but probably at that point I’ll be trying to write about something else. I’ve said this before, that ideas are different than words on paper. The story that is possible for me to tell may be very different from the one I want to tell.

The same thing happened with The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I was trying to tell the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but I couldn’t figure it out, and I was stuck and blocked, and it took a long, slow time with lots and lots of notes for me to find the story I could tell.

Writer’s block is like insomnia. It’s your brain that won’t let you write, obviously, and it’s your brain that won’t let you sleep. In insomnia, you’re tired, but your brain refuses to relax. The brain gets just as tense and uncooperative in writer’s block.

I read a great and helpful book about insomnia, not that I have a problem, called The Insomnia Answer by Dr. Paul Glovinsky and Dr. Arthur Spielman. It’s a reassuring book. The good docs take the pressure off, and some of what they say applies to writer’s block, among other things, that a missed night’s sleep is not a tragedy. A day without progress in a story is no tragedy either. Hey, I may have a great writing day and then wind up cutting everything I wrote. I feel better than on a blocked day, but the result is the same.

They advise the frustrated sleeper not to stay in bed indefinitely, but to get up for a while and do something boring, something that won’t be fascinating enough to prevent a return to bed after a while. We frustrated writers need to put in time at our desks, but eventually we need a break too, and a boring break may be just the thing to allow a good idea to surface. Take a walk or a bubble bath, chop vegetables, play solitaire (mystery writer Lawrence Block’s remedy), and let your mind swing free.

The brilliant doctors write about the sleep drive, which will eventually get an insomniac sleeping. There is a writing drive, too, which will at long last overcome the barriers our silly brains throw up. This writing drive is our most important ally. I may sound New Age-ish here, because trust is involved, and mistrust is the enemy. If you are convinced that the block will never crumble, it still will, but it will linger longer than if you know that it is doomed. You gain trust by experience, and maybe, I hope, by trusting me. Take my word for it: Writer’s block will pass.

While you’re in the midst of it, however, be kind to yourself, as if you were a child down with a fever. Don’t yell at yourself. Don’t reduce yourself to tears. Don’t even think the word bootstraps or failure, unless you are taking pleasure in your wallowing. The point is, even in writer’s block, have as much fun as you can.

  1. Thanks for permission 🙂 to enjoy a book on Versailles while waiting to figure out what the last key scene is (not the end one, but the last one I need to figure out) in my book. I feel guilt that I should be writing.

    But, my book does involve royalty, so I'm trying to convince myself that it's research. But then my very next thought is that I have done an awful lot of research to write this book. Oh! There I go again beating up on myself. 🙂

  2. I've only just found your blog, and this is such a helpful post, especially when facing the lulls of the dreaded Middle of the Book.

    I had no idea that The Two Princesses of Bamarre (one of my favorites that I brought with me to college) started out as a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses! I'm always so terrified of straying off the path I've planned–maybe it's not so bad after all.

  3. That was a very helpful post! I often get major writers block and what I do most of the time is let someone else write my next sentence. I know it seems bad to make someone else write your work but it is just enough to get you going! It gives you a direction to go and that is often all you need! If their sentence is really bad then you can strach it later but it's a start.

    Thanks for the tips!

  4. This post was both incredibly helpful and incredibly comforting.

    Writing is one of my favorite things to do, but I often find myself blocked. Only upon reading this post did I finnaly realize that most of the time when I have writer's block, I'm very stressed, (which is probably why I have trouble sleeping, too). It's reassuring to know that the block will go away, even more so now that I have tips to help me.

  5. I appreciate this post so much! It's interesting (and helpful) to hear that some of your stories took big turns from where you originally intended to take them. And they all turned out so wonderful! It's quite heartening.

    Regarding writer's block, I remember reading about a symposium where one of the author speakers (Shannon Hale maybe?) talked about how writer's block is usually due to fear. I think that's so true, and it goes along with the self-loathing issue to a certain degree.

    When I'm having a hard time putting words down and I force myself to think about why I might be struggling, it almost always comes down to fear that I won't be able to pull it off. I worry that I won't be able to translate the story from my head to the paper in a way that's interesting and fun and worth reading. And so it paralyzes me.

    The thing that has helped me the most recently is to consciously choose to write over the top of my fear, so to speak. I give myself permission to put down whatever comes into my head, as far from perfect as it is, knowing that I can make revisions later. I even write notes to myself right there in the draft, to keep myself going. It seems like an obvious thing to do, I guess, but it took me a while to get it.

    I also like the idea of taking a boring break, as you mentioned. There's nothing like folding a pile of laundry to help me realize how much I prefer writing:).

  6. I'm a college senior, but I grew up in my closet reading books all night, my absolute favorite of which was Ella Enchanted. I still pull out a happily tattered copy at least twice a year to regress back to those good ole days and enjoy a book with imagination, depth, and a strong girl.

    So thank you for that! I also think it's cool that you're so open about writing and creating a dialog with others interested in writing. I'm definitely planning on doubling back to read it! Cheers!

  7. Mrs. Lavine,

    My 10 year old daughter wishes desparately to become a writer. As this doesn't appear to be the norm, she has found you as an inspiration for her aspirations. She won first place last year in UIL ready writing here in West Texas. She is needing encouragement as an abnormal path is hard to walk. I am trying this link in hopes that she may participate in some sort of dialect with you….a letter, or anything that would be an encouragement for her at this time in her life. Thank you for your consideration.

  8. Dear Mrs.Levine,
    This is Micah, Ed's 10 year old daughter.I read your book, Writing Magic, and it inspired me very much. It made me want to be an auther, as you have read.(Ed) Oh! by the way, I won the 1st place TWO years ago, not one… I didn't do it last year 'cause I had to go to the dentist on practice days. So I'm going to try again this year! I only have this year and next year 'cause I'm in 5th grade and I'll go on to JrHigh after 6th grade. Maybe there might be a writing thingy in JrHigh too! How lucky is that???
    I have a question, I'm writing a book and I've already started writing a book before that. Is that good or bad???

  9. I never suspected the 12 dancing princesses was the beginning of The Two Princesses of Bamarre–which is a very close second to Ella Enchanted for my favorites of yours, as well as the number of times I've read it (numerous, and also on tape). I loved the dragons and the poetry in Princesses.

    In essence, I geeked out when I found your NaNoWriMo pep talk in my email. Once November is over, I just might stick around here.

    And I do know a bit about morphing stories. I had a supervillain novel that turned into literary fiction.

  10. What a great design! You certainly know how to make your readers happy.
    Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog .(well,about…… Ha, ha!) Well done. I really like what you’re saying, and more.More importantly than that, the mode you presented it, it was so cool!797

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