Summer 2018 Part Three and Beyond: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Hey everybody. Welcome to October. We’re back to the time when it takes me a whole month to write a blog post. Sorry.

 

The first month of the semester has been a bit of a mixed bag. I’m enjoying some of my classes. Some classes less so. There’s so much reading, and I also got pretty sick the first week of school, which threw everything out of whack for a while. I’m having a hard time juggling all my reading, my now part-time internship at Analytical Space, my post-graduate job search, and all the things I want to do for fun. I’m definitely missing the summer, when I went to work full time, came home, and didn’t have homework. And I’m not going to lie, a huge part of my motivation right now is that by this time next year, I won’t have four hundred pages of legal reading a week to do at home. It’s such a glorious prospect.

 

In the last couple of weeks of the summer, I posted about the two halves of my summer and the two different internships I had. Now, I’m going to talk about a third half of my summer, which is how I finally kicked my writer’s block out the door. This is still an ongoing struggle for me, what with trying to balance writing with everything else I’m doing, but it mostly happened over the summer.

 

Last spring, I wrote about how I was struggling with writer’s block and balancing law school and writing. I’d never experienced writer’s block like this before, and I was pretty miserable about it. I tried all the standard advice for handling writer’s block—changing things up with the project you’re working on, starting a new project, taking walks to think about where I might be stuck, just sitting my butt in the chair and forcing myself to write one. word. at. a. time. None of it worked. A lot of it actually made me more miserable. All I could think of was that person who said writer’s block isn’t a real thing, just an excuse for being lazy. A plumber can’t say they have plumber’s block, or whatever, so the fact that I really did feel blocked made me feel like I was some kind of failure and would never have any kind of writing career. Which of course made everything worse. And round and round the drain I circled, rapidly on my way to becoming plumber’s block myself.

 

At the time, I was worried that it wouldn’t get better. I wrote my post from the middle of all these miserable feelings, and while I didn’t see how it could possibly get better, it did. I got through it. And I want to tell you how. If you’re struggling with something like this, know that this might not help you, because everybody’s struggle and process is different. There is no one magical solution, unfortunately. But it might help you, and if this process will help even one person, it’s worth sharing to me. So here’s what I did to overcome my writer’s block, broken down into eight steps that makes me look a lot more put together than I really am.

 

  1. Figure out why you’re blocked.

 

There are a few reasons why you might be blocked. You might be stuck on how a particular scene works, or how a character should function in a story. There might be something deep down in the project that isn’t working and your subconscious is screaming at you, but it’s your subconscious so you don’t realize it for a while. You could have just lost interest in the project. These are the sorts of blocks that changing things up, taking long walks or hot showers or whatever, or trying something new will solve.

 

Then there’s the kind of writer’s block you get when you’re just creatively drained, exhausted, stressed, and generally burnt-out. This is what I think was going on with me.

 

Figuring out why you’re blocked is key to solving the problem. As I discovered, starting new projects, changing points of view, working through snarly plot points, none of that will help if you’re drained. In fact, they’ll just make you more frustrated.

 

So do some self-exploration and figure out why you’re blocked. Then set out to solve it.

 

  1. Talk about being blocked.

 

I addressed this in my original post on writer’s block, but there’s this feeling in the writing community that everything has to be sunshine and rainbows. Writing is what we were built to do, and simply by writing, we’re living the dream, right? But there are struggles in the writing life, and it’s unhealthy to ignore them. More and more, I’m seeing writers and professionals in the writing industry speaking up on Twitter about what they are struggling with and what is challenging about the industry, and the support that comes out of the woodwork for them is incredible.

 

I’d say one of the single most helpful things I did to unblock myself was to start talking about it. I’m not saying complain about it publicly. Don’t become a whiny, miserable, bitter person. There is still something to be said about acting professionally and positively on public social media. But it’s okay to admit that you’re having trouble.

 

When I started talking about struggling with writer’s block, I realized that I was not the only one. That really helped me realize that I was not a failure. Friends and writers  I admire have struggled with this too. Also, it was kind of freeing to talk about it. I was no longer holding how miserable I felt inside myself. And talking about it helped me move from wallowing in my misery to accepting that I was struggling and trying to figure out how to fix it.

 

  1. Allow yourself to take a break.

 

Self care is really important, guys. If you’re struggling with writer’s block because you’re exhausted and stressed, it’s okay to take a break. Writing every day won’t get you anywhere if it’s just making you unhappy.

 

Once I figured out that the reason I was struggling to write because I was creatively drained and stressed out, I also realized that forcing myself to write was adding to my stress. At the time, I had a full course load. I was trying to get a second internship for the summer, and I couldn’t find housing for my first internship, and a bunch of other little things. Trying to force myself was just not helping with any of that. So I said to myself, “Self, it’s okay to not write for a while. If the problem is that I’m burnt-out, then the solution is to recharge. And right now this is the only thing I can take off my plate.”

 

  1. Find what has inspired you in the past and immerse yourself in that.

 

So I took a break. But that isn’t to say that I just stopped trying to solve the problem. While I wasn’t writing, I was still participating in my biweekly writing skype calls with my friends from Kenyon. I was thinking about my stories and where I wanted to go with them. And I delved back into some books and TV shows that have inspired me to write in the past. For me, that meant rereading The Hunger Games and the Giver series and rewatching Anne with an E on Netflix (sidenote, if you haven’t watched that yet you need to).

 

We all have those books and movies that have inspired us to write. They might inspire us to work on specific projects or just in general inspire us to write something. So while I wasn’t actively writing, I was immersing myself in what, in the past, had driven me to write. And little by little, I started wanting to write again.

 

  1. Get rid of any stressors you can.

 

I sort of talked about this a bit in step 3. At the time when I was most seriously blocked, I had a full course load and all the work that entailed, trying to find a second summer internship, trying to find housing  for my first summer internship in Maryland (no one wanted to rent to me for only two months with a dog). There were other things too, plus the writer’s block. I thought that part of my problem with the writing was that I was so stressed about everything else.  So I set out to get as much off my plate as I could. This is why I took a deliberate break from writing. It was something I could control. I couldn’t just stop doing the other things. Depending on your situation, you may or may not be able to get rid of your stressors. I recommend getting rid of as many as you can. Because when I got my second internship at Analytical Space, when I figured out housing for my internship at NIST, and then when my classes started finally winding down, there was room on my plate for me to act on that growing drive to write that was creeping up on me because of step 4.

 

  1. Accomplish one thing. I don’t care how small.

 

So I’d been thinking about writing and reading and watching things that were inspiring me to write. I’d gotten my Analytical Space internship, and I’d found housing for my internship at NIST. And one evening, I set our roomba to vacuum the living room. And eventually I had to study, didn’t want to study in my room and wanted to study downstairs, and the roomba was making a lot of noise. So I told the roomba to stop vacuuming and go back to its home base, and the roomba went off in the wrong direction. I was working on my final paper for my Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence course, and I jokingly said to my roommate, “Oh no! The AI apocalypse is upon us!”

 

And that night, I sat down and wrote a flash fiction piece about the AI apocalypse starting with a roomba insisting that it hadn’t finished cleaning. It’s short, only a thousand words (about four pages), and it’s meant to be kind of funny but also disturbing. But most importantly, it was something that I had finished. Up to this point, I’d been accumulating a vast pile of unfinished projects, so finishing something, even if it was a small, funny something, was a really big deal.

 

It was actually the last piece in the puzzle I’d been needing. Take a break, immerse yourself in what inspires you, reduce your stressors, and then, when you’re ready, write. And finish something. Show yourself that it’s possible. Because even if it doesn’t feel like it when you’re spiraling your way to becoming plumber’s block, it is possible.

 

  1. Get a few more wins under your belt.

 

At this point, I knew it was important to keep writing. Not a lot. Not enough to burn myself out again, because I was still in the middle of finals. But when I wanted to write, and I did want to write now, I did. And at this point, this was what I needed to do to keep myself writing. It also helped that right around this time, I got the acceptance letter from Andromeda Spaceways for my story “The Year of Salted Skies.” It was really lucky timing here, because it was just one more added confidence boost. And to some extent, because editors’ taste are so subjective, it’s kind of out of your control. But while I stopped writing, I didn’t stop submitting my stuff that was ready to be submitted. And getting “Salted Skies” published, and some other good news I got in June that I can’t tell you yet, really helped motivate me to keep writing.

 

  1. Look back at what happened and make a plan to do better next time.

 

By the time June came around, I was using all my free time to write. I finally finished revisions on my middle grade fantasy novel that I’ve been planning for a while. And I’m querying that again now. Over the rest of the summer, I started on the long path of finishing all the projects that I started and then abandoned during my months of writing block. Because I still love a lot of those ideas. I’m not writing all that fast, but I’m still writing.

 

Once I felt confident in my writing again, I took some time to look back at last school year to figure out what happened. I was really busy last fall because of the clinic I was in. I thought I could still do National Novel Writing Month. But the clinic project was bigger than anyone thought and quickly overwhelmed everything else. I wrote about thirty thousand words on my novel in November, and all things considered that was pretty good. But I’d pinned a lot on writing the whole novel in November, and also I’d never failed to write the full fifty thousand words in November. So here I was, totally swamped by school and work and unable to do what I wanted to do most. That, I think, was how it all started. It just got worse from there. But once I went through the steps I described here, once I figured out what the problem was, took a break and worked to inspire myself, and took baby steps back into writing, I was okay. But I don’t want this to happen again.

 

Ultimately, this happened because I failed to meet a goal. A crazy, unreasonable goal, but still. So what I’ve decided I need to do is to try to set more reasonable goals for myself. I’m a goal oriented person, so I’m not just going to abandon setting goals for myself altogether. But I’m not going to push myself to write a whole novel in a month while I also have a full course load and a part-time internship. Sometimes, this means I can’t do things I really want to do. For example, I really wanted to submit to PitchWars, which is a competition to get your novel mentored and then to get agents. But I accepted the fact that my third year of law school was going to be crazy, and I’d be better off waiting to submit until next year, after the bar and everything. And there’s nothing to stop me from querying agents the normal way throughout the year. I’m also not sure if I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year. This seems, even to me, like I’m not doing that much writing, but this is actually freeing me up to write, and I’m writing more because of it.

 

I’m still setting goals for myself. And because I’m trying to hold myself accountable and actually meet these goals, I’m going to share with you my writing goals for the month and share my progress at the end of the month.

 

This month, I’d like to finish drafts of two short stories, one fantasy and one science fiction. I’m on the third draft of the fantasy story, and I want to finish the edits and send it off to beta readers for one more round of critiques before I start submitting it. I still haven’t finished the science fiction story, but I’m hoping to submit it for next year’s Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology. Submissions close in December for that, so I’d like to have a first draft done by the end of the month.

 

So there you have it. How I overcame writer’s block and what I’m planning to do next. I hope what helped me helps some of you. And if you’ve struggled with writer’s block for whatever reason, please share what worked for you in the comments.

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This Too Shall Pass… I hope

Last week, I got involved in a conversation on Twitter about the challenges of writing while attending school. It was past midnight, so I let out a lot of feelings I normally try to keep tucked away. Now, in the light of day, I’m trying to crystalize what we were talking about into something coherent and at least a little bit constructive on the challenges of writing while you’re a student and, because this is how those challenges have manifested for me, overcoming cosmic writer’s block.

 

To be completely honest, all through college and the few years after college before I started law school, my friends considered me something of a writing wonder. I write a lot, and I write fast. And in college, I always found time to write. But at the same time, I was steeped in creativity. My friends were the same people in my writing group. We would set aside hours for quiet writing time. We were so involved with each other’s stories that we talked about them all the time, formulating theories, helping each other work out plot holes, and so on. And when we weren’t writing or talking about our projects, we were disecting books we were reading and shows and movies we were watching. It was a really great experience, and if you have a group like that in college, then I totally agree with anyone who says that college is the best time to get writing done. But I’ve also heard a lot of college students say that it’s hard to get writing done in college because of all the other things you have to balance, and while I didn’t really get it as an undergraduate, I’m definitely getting it now.

 

Since I left college and I’ve lost that constant, in-person writing support group, writing has become a struggle for me. I kept going through my first year of law school, partly because it was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it wasn’t easy the way writing used to be easy. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post from last year where I was saying that I was going to do Camp NaNoWriMo in April because I was tired of a paragraph feeling like a victory. And in my second year of law school, it’s only gotten worse. I was told my second year of law school would be easier than the first, but this has turned out to be a big fat lie, at least for me. The only real difference is that I chose all the things that are making me busy. Still, I managed to get some short stories written in the fall, and even about a third of a new novel during NaNoWriMo in November, at least before the work really hit, and I had to write a two hundred page paper and edit it four times with a partner in a month, and I stopped writing. And anything I’ve written since has been like pulling teeth and doesn’t even feel like a victory when it’s on the page.

 

I’m calling this cosmic writer’s block. It’s not like writer’s block as you would traditionally think of it. I’m not stuck on a specific story or a specific scene. I’ve tried switching projects, and now I just have about fifteen unfinished projects floating around, which of course just makes me feel worse about the whole thing. I’ve tried all the things the internet recommends for combatting writer’s block—taking walks, taking showers, just powering through because writer’s block isn’t real, and—but nothing helped. I remembered the distinction Anne Lamott drew in her book Bird by Bird, the distinction between blocked and empty. But even her suggestion to do things that normally inspire you, like reading books or watching movies or TV shows that inspire you to write really hasn’t made  much of a dent. I’m just exhausted, and the idea of writing right now feels more exhausting, and when I can’t write, I’m even more discouraged and exhausted. So even though I’m fully aware that I’m spiraling, I can’t stop it. I just have no desire to write, and since for so long writing has been the only thing I really want to do, this is really scary to me.

 

I don’t have any answers to this, except that maybe I just need a week-long nap. But that’s part of the point of this post. I’m not here to tell some story about how perseverance makes everything okay, because I can’t say that right now, and if you’re feeling anything like me, you don’t want to hear that. I’m talking about writing, but I could be talking about any number of things in my life in the past few months, and any time I try to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, they come up with some baloney about how your twenties suck and “this too shall pass.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those words in the past few months, I could probably pay back a big chunk of my student loans, which would be a lot more useful than that advice. Maybe it will pass. I really hope it does pass. But right now I’m in the middle of it, and it feels like it won’t ever get better, and just saying “this too shall pass” is the least helpful thing anyone can say.

 

So I don’t want to hear that this will get better. I don’t want you to present me with all the examples of other writers who have overcome this kind of block or received hundreds of rejections or who have struggled with writing as a student. What I want is to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. What I want is to have a productive conversation about these feelings and how we, the young writers and students, can deal with them. Because as far as I can tell, these conversations aren’t happening. To write about rejection and confidence issues and writer’s block and the unique challenges faced by writers who are also students, to some extent we need to talk about failure. Nobody wants to talk about their own failures. And nobody wants to come across as whiny or bitter or incapable. If you’re trying to be a professional writer, it’s not the image you want to present to the interwebs. Even I struggled with whether I wanted to write this post, but I can’t be the only one struggling with this. And if I’m not alone, then maybe writing a post about these challenges will help someone else, even if it just lets them know that others are out there dealing with the same things.

 

So here I am. I am trying to write while attending law school. At this moment, I am struggling with writer’s block on a level i have never experienced before. I’ve published a few short stories, yes, but I’ve received way more rejections, and right now my predominant feeling is that I am somehow a failure and I will never be a successful writer.

 

I hope that someday soon I will be able to write a blog post about how I’ve gotten past all this. But right now, I’m in the middle of it, and sometimes I feel like I’m not going to get past it. If there’s a magic bullet to kickstart my creative brain, I’d love to hear about it. But while I don’t have a magic bullet of my own, I do have some inkling of the roots of the problem.

 

First, I need to work on setting reasonable goals for myself. I had this crazy idea that I would write an entire novel during NaNoWriMo last November and then spend the rest of the school year editing it to perfection, all while keeping up with all my classes and clinics. This was a ridiculous goal, but it was still what I wanted to accomplish this year. And when I failed, I couldn’t pick myself up and press on.

 

As a student, you’re juggling a lot of things: classes, including homework, projects, and exams; extracurricular activities; summer internship and post-graduation job searches; having a social life; and any hobbies you want to keep up. You also have to eat and sleep. Throw consistently writing into that mix, and it’s a little mind-boggling that one person can handle so much. If goals and deadlines motivate you to accomplish things, that’s great. Set goals. But don’t set crazy goals. And when things get out of hand and you don’t accomplish your goals, you can’t beat yourself up over it.

 

Obviously, I really need to work on this. It usually works for me to set goals for myself, but when I fail to accomplish them, I beat myself up and just make the situation worse. I have realized this is a problem, and I’m working on solving it. I considered doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this month and setting a small goal for myself that I felt would be a challenge but would still be something I could accomplish. But I also recognized that I have two fifteen-page papers due this month, as well as a final play to write and perform for my french class and a final exam. I also need to get everything in order for my summer internships. And in the place where I am now, even setting myself a small writing goal would be setting myself up for failure, which wouldn’t help the situation at all.

 

This goes for goals for publication too. The publication market is so subjective, and so much of it is outside your control, that beating yourself up over success or lack-there-of is just counterproductive. The most you can do to pursue a goal of getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting. Yes, rejections suck, but remember why you are writing. For me, I’m writing for myself, because I have a story inside me that needs to be told. Beyond that, I have a close group of friends who want to know what happens next. I hope  that someone, at some time, thinks that others need to read my stories too, but if an editor thinks that’s not the case, I’m not going to let that stop me from writing, because first and foremost I’m writing for me. I’m writing because it makes me happy.

 

Finding what inspires you also helps. Generally reading inspires me to write, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading a lot in the past few months. But this year I’ve been reading books that I haven’t read before. A couple weeks ago, I picked up The Hunger Games books and started rereading them. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I might want to sit down and write. I first read The Hunger Games back in college, and it was a big inspiration for my memory-wiping academy novel, which I’m now editing and expanding into a series. So maybe, if you’re stuck, don’t just do things that typically inspire you. If you can pinpoint it, specifically target what drove you to write this story in the first place and revisit it. It might also help to reread what you’ve written so far and remind yourself that it isn’t complete garbage and there’s a reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Basically, find what will inspire you now, which may  not be what usually inspires you, and tap into it.

 

Remember that there’s time. Along with setting reasonable goals for yourself and not beating yourself up if you have to change those goals, remember that there’s time. Yes, it would be fantastic to write, edit, and publish a novel before you’re twenty, or twenty-five, or whatever age you pick. But you’re in school for a reason, and even if you’re studying creative writing, that reason is to learn, not to write the next Harry Potter. Also, all your experiences in school and beyond school will inspire your writing and contribute to the stories you tell. I really, really wanted to get my novel published before I graduated college, but now I’m glad I didn’t, because my experiences being on my own, separated from my family and friends, and adulting for the first time in Italy right after college really informed my characters’ struggles and decisions, and ultimately made that story stronger. So don’t freak out. There’s time.

 

And because there’s time, it’s okay to take a break to recharge. School is exhausting, and it is also constant. You are surrounded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with school. In a lot of ways, I feel like law school has taken away everything I love to do, one by one: reading books in Braille, playing the clarinet, drawing, and now writing, mostly because I’m just too busy and too exhausted to keep it up. I’ve clung to writing, saying oan more than one occasion that it’s the only thing keeping me sane. But now I can’t even muster that up. So if you’re just burnt out, which I’m feeling like is a large part of my writer’s block right now, it’s okay to take a break, let the creative part of your brain reboot, and get back to it when you feel ready.

 

I’m only just starting to feel the itch in my subconscious calling me back to my writing projects. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my stories more than I have in a while. I haven’t really gotten to the actual writing part. So I could be completely wrong about these strategies for how to write while being a student or how to overcome writer’s block. I’m still in the middle of all of this,  and I’m hoping that it will get better and I can tell you for sure that these things worked for me. I hope that these strategies work for you, too, if you’re having a hard time, and I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in your feelings. And I would love to hear others’ opinions on how to overcome this cosmic writing block and how to successfully manage being a student and writing.