Finding the Story I Needed to Write Almost Derailed My Writing Practice
You may have noticed I haven’t been posting my weekly #bradburychallenge stories. This morning I made a surprisingly profound discovery about why my writing practice had faltered.
Many people will tell you writer’s block is a myth, almost like it’s an imaginary, first-world problem or simply an issue of willpower. I don’t believe that. The drill-sergeant style instruction to ‘just write’ strikes me as unhelpful.
However, the drill sergeant might have a point, just one that needs to include a bit more information. If you haven’t been writing, or when you sit down to write you feel stuck, I urge you to ‘just write’ in a journal about your story, about what it feels like to be stuck, about the resistance you’re feeling.
Ask yourself why you feel you need to write, why you need to write this particular story.
When you write about your story and your relationship to writing you ARE working on your story, it counts, and that is one of the biggest takeaways from my experience this morning. Because today I experienced the power of journaling about your writing, and I want to share it with you.
When you run out of excuses, you find out the problem goes deeper
I thought I was just busy working as a book coach. I thought I was just busy with the summer holidays. I thought maybe I was addicted to Instagram.
This morning, for the first time in weeks, both of my children were in school or playschool. I had no excuses. Still, I noticed myself procrastinating.
My resistance was not a product of circumstance, it was something inside me that was reluctant to write, even when I had the opportunity.
“the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Ideas Start Visiting
I am not a frustrated writer who works on other people’s books and collaborates with other writers because secretly, I wish I could write. In fact, one of the reasons I write is to improve as a book coach!
Having said that, when I started writing flash fiction I was surprised that story ideas started visiting me more and more often. I started the Bradbury Challenge partly because I wanted to see if they would keep coming.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes that “ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners”. Pablo Picasso said that “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. Now, whether you believe ideas exist on a transcendent plane of existence or its something about the way our brains work, doesn’t matter too much to me. I’m not too sure, I have days when I indulge my magical thinking, but mostly I suspect the real magic is the way our brains work.
What I discovered, when I started writing flash fiction, is that when you instruct your mind to start looking for story ideas, you start to find them. Well DUH.
There was I assuming that I wasn’t cut out to write since I was never one of those people, like my clients, who get gripped by a story they just have to tell, whether they’d like to or not.
A Story comes to Stay, and Everything goes to Hell
But! After a couple of weeks writing my weekly stories, and being amazed at what I came up with (even if I could see they were just rough first drafts), a story that I’d been mulling over for a while took residence in my brain. For that week’s Bradbury challenge I wrote a few scenes of that story (and published them here as Lily of the Valley).
This story felt like me. I felt compelled to write it. It was important to me.
But after I wrote these scenes, my momentum with the Bradbury challenge came to a stumbling halt.
So soon! I didn’t even make it through a month.
I started to regret starting the challenge, the vulnerability of putting my money where my mouth was, as a book coach, suddenly seemed like a terrible decision. Who am I to help others write when my own writing practice has stumbled so soon?
I had already accepted that the reason I wasn’t writing was that the Bradbury challenge had lost its appeal. I no longer wanted to write a story a week in a conscientious effort to improve my craft. I wanted to spend my time
Getting to Know Your Story by Asking WHY?
As I faffed around this morning, avoiding writing AGAIN, I realised that I wasn’t even following the process that I recommend to clients.
I had to rugby tackle myself to my bench at the kitchen table, but I got there, and, after more faffing as I noted the beautiful light and just HAD to photograph it, I started to write by hand in a brand new notebook.
“Why THIS story? Why do I need to write THIS story?”
Before I got beyond the first paragraph a tear dripped from the end of my nose and made a surprisingly large splash mark on the page.
These were the words that really hurt:
“The first time I visited the forest after she’d died, it seemed incredible that it was still there, but she was not”.
This was hard. I went from the buoyant feeling of back to school peace and quiet, to a total mess of snot and sore eyes in the space of under one hundred words.
No wonder I was resistant to sitting down to write.
But, as I blew my nose, I smiled to myself. Because I now know my ‘why’? And I know that this will be the North Star for my story. There’s a long journey ahead of me, but now I have a compass. I am much closer to knowing what my story will be about. I am much closer to knowing why I wanted the forest to be a character in the story. I understand why I was drawn to magical realism for this story.
I’m on my way.
It’s so important to understand and seek out the deepest, most profound, most specific reason that you are writing your story. I am sure I will continue to make deeper discoveries about why I am writing the story I am writing because I know there are more layers to what that forest means to me, why mortality and nature and grief are entangled in this way. I know I need to keep asking these questions if my book is to be what I want it to be, what I sense it could be.
The best thing about my experience this morning is that it confirms to me that the process I guide my clients through really works.
Often, you won’t be stuck, but you still need to ask yourself why you’re writing this story if you want to infuse it with your authentic voice, your unique vision.
If you are stuck, that very resistance may provide a clue. Get curious about your resistance, because, as Steven Pressfield says in the War of Art, “the more scared we are of a work or calling, the