This last month, I’ve been working on a writing project, in which my goal was to write 10,000 words. I succeeded at this goal!! My first 3 1/2 chapters are wonderful and I love them and obviously, it’s going to take a lot more work to get to the end, but I’m proud of myself for how far I’ve gone.
I’m probably going to talk a bit more about my WIP at some point on this blog, and for now, you can check out the small amount of tweeting I’ve done about it or maybe go listen to the super long playlist I made to write to. But for today, I wanted to talk a little bit about writer’s block.
The technical term for the phenomenon we tend to call writer’s block is “writer’s anxiety.” The most important thing to know about writer’s block, for a writer, is that it is situational: “you might feel perfectly fine writing a biology lab report but apprehensive about writing a paper on a novel… you may confidently tackle a paper about the sociology of gender but delete and start over twenty times when composing an email to a cute classmate to suggest a coffee date,” as the University of North Carolina’s writing center puts it. Given its situational nature, there are many causes for writer’s anxiety, but I found the most primary in my experience to be one listed by the University of North Carolina: “remembering negative criticism received in the past—even if the reader who criticized your work won’t be reading your writing this time.” For me, this often took the form of worrying that others would immediately laugh at my writing; find it pathetic, belittle it. This project was a deep experience in learning to work through that insecurity.
One of my other attempts to break writer’s anxiety was my original plan to set goals for each writing session, like writing a certain number of words. This did not work as I was too busy to keep up with my own lofty expectations, which ironically made me less eager to write. About halfway through my project, however, the American Psychological Association suggested a different system, in which you reward yourself for keeping up with goals: “As a student, Kaufman would not allow himself to brush his teeth, shower or leave his room before finishing a writing task.” I tried this once as well; after one particularly long and productive day of writing, I bought myself a fancy frappuchino (I know, I know). I never, however, worked this into an actual system, as the article suggests. This feels as if it may be worth further experimentation.
Writer’s anxiety can easily be intensified by distractions; distractions can become an easy excuse for existing anxiety, as is the primary topic of my grandmother’s pHD dissertation. To avoid this slowdown in speed of writing, I found that eliminating distraction was the most important aspect in writing. I usually needed a clean, focused workspace to write best; I often found being in a coffee shop upped my focus. One helpful solution to the temptation to go on Twitter for a few minutes was to use a browser extension that eliminated access to distractions; I found that this improved my productivity a lot during the first week. Over the course of this project, I made one playlist of instrumental & classical tracks that felt sufficiently dramatic for my work, and one playlist of music that felt appropriate to my source material and thus could get me in the right headspace; these helped me concentrate, with instrumental helping more when I needed to relax and contemporary helping when I wanted to be in a certain mood. But the most important thing I discovered is that the less stressed I felt in my life, the easier it was for me to write. Most of my strongest instances of writer’s anxiety came due to some other stressor in my life. I found that getting a few things done, cleaning my room, taking a bath, or listening to music in the dark sometimes helped me come back to myself.
One of my biggest instances of writer’s anxiety, surprisingly, came after a major success in the project. I had been working on my first and second chapters (each very long) in detail for essentially the whole project, trying to make them perfect. And the day of my AP Calc exam, when I finally finished a second chapter I felt really good about… I froze. It took me another week of writing scenes that would go later in the novel for me to go back to the beginning. This is the moment I realized that sometimes, there isn’t a lot of logic to when writer’s block shows up; it’s just about learning to move past it, or do other writing.
From my personal experience, I learned that getting both positive and negative feedback helped me in breaking through writer’s anxiety: I could go back and edit what needed fixing, but also feel confident that my writing was not completely terrible. This echoes my grandmother’s paper and its suggestion to “identify your strengths”; it is important to know what is working in your writing, to have the self-confidence to write further. Feedback is a part of learning your strengths, but another part is simply writing more. During the project, I spent one day reading back through some writing I had done back in 2017 and barely remembered… and discovered, to my shock, that some of it was honestly quite good. It is hard to look back at writing you have done and notice that it is good; looking back at my writing from a distant standpoint, however, immediately helped me feel more confident in jumping back in. For me, feedback also often helped to focus what I liked about my writing. For example, my expert’s feedback that my tone had its intended effect — “arch, ironic, and unafraid to deepen the relations/conflicts among the characters” — helped me feel more comfortable leaning into my established ironic tone, something I had liked but had not felt entirely confident in.
Generalized feedback from friends helped as well. I remembered reading a short story a year previously by one of my close blogging friends, May, and really enjoying their style. May was so kind as to read my first three chapters, and sent me a set of very enthusiastic DMs containing reactions. They were not sending me full critique, nor did I want them to do so, but they still helped me a lot in finding what my writing actually conveyed. Actually, here was May’s exact text to me:
“knowing you i bet there’s gonna be a f/f romance but i genuinely cannot figure out who it’s going to be between because every character’s dynamic w each other is just !!”
1) THIS IS A FUCKING TESTIMONIAL, RIGHT HERE
2) She’s right about the existence of a romance. But she also doesn’t quite know who the players are yet, which is what I wanted (I think romantic arcs should start subtle). This is also good feedback because it got me re-excited about the dynamics I had created between the six total characters who exist in this work; it made me re-remember how much I love these characters, and got me re-inspired to continue their story.
Sometimes, the most inspiring action can be a major creative change. Adding a plot twist is not unheard of as a method of breaking writer’s anxiety; a popular Tumblr post notes that a good way of working through writer’s anxiety would be adding a plot twist. “It may not work as part of your actual plot, but a sudden plot twist such as a fire or an earthquake or even an alien invasion helps your mind use more creativity, helping your writing flow out more easily.” I think this is a little overboard, but I discovered twists can help firsthand. One of the first pieces of feedback I recieved from my writing expert, Steven Nightingale, read as follows: “You have four main characters: Aria, Romie, Katherine, and Nicole. The first three are center stage, but it’s not clear who Nicole is, and what role she plays. I’d suggest either more information about her—or less.” My immediate gut reaction to this was to pump up Nicole’s role in the first chapter. As I went through this process, I realized it did not flow or tie in well with the rest of the narrative. Some consideration led me to the conclusion that this was a problem of drafting: the earlier draft of my novel had held Nicole as arguably the most important secondary character, but as other characters shifted into the forefront of the novel, her role had shrunk. On a whim, I rewrote all of my recent writing, replacing her role with the roles of two other characters — and it worked perfectly. The new draft had more tension (as some of her lines were replaced by those of the arguable villain) and gave another character more depth; Katherine, who was originally essentially comic relief, was suddenly a key part of the novel.
One of my best writing discoveries this month was that getting invested in other pieces of media could help in finding inspiration. It is reading other’s work that has made me want to become an author, or at least consider writing as a career. I didn’t have much time to watch tv or read this month, but at one point, during a family movie night, I got the chance to watch If Beale Street Could Talk, a movie that really hit me. Though it has literally nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m writing at the moment, thinking about what made that movie work helped me think about what I wanted from my writing, which made me feel inspired to keep working. This is not a new solution, as that same popular list of tips for writer’s block contains one similar suggestion: “Reading other author’s work can help inspire yourself to write and get it published.” This is hardly surprising. All writers start as readers, and it is important to remember this when writing.
In my journey writing my manuscript this month, I reached 30,000 words total of writing, 10,000 of them linear. But along the way, I also learned a lot about how to continue writing. Over this summer, in my continued writing of this piece, I will continue to ask for feedback, use a goals system (perhaps incorporating rewards this time for real), and consider making deeper changes in my plot when I get stuck. When I’m stressed, I will focus on getting a few things done, cleaning my room, taking a bath, or listening to music in the dark. I might try to establish a schedule, or experiment to find which days of the week are best for writing for me personally. I will also re-focus on reading, something I love.