You’re staring at a blank paper, at a glowing horrendous blizzard-like whiteout of screen. You start a sentence. You stop. Backtracking, you delete it all. You rename the file, just to better destroy all trace of the schlep you wrote. You get up for coffee, for cheese nibs. You water the plants, do 53 sets of crunches, and post before-and-after Instagram photos.
You return to the empty, mocking paper. Nothing has changed on its inscrutable face. The cursor blinks. You find your breathing synchronizes with it, like a numb meditation, the sound of one hand clapping.
How do you make words happen?
How do you make story happen?
How do you get those first syllables to string themselves together – and, after that – how do you make more such wonderfulness appear, words and sentences and even sometimes whole paragraphs that convey meaning and move a plot?
There are, and must be, a million right answers to these questions.
I’m going to share just a few of the techniques I’ve developed to combat the white page and move the writing forward, bit by bit, day after day. Broadly speaking, they break down into four categories of writing-usefulness: space and time, confidence, motivation, and inoculating myself from distraction.
Space & time
Life often gets in the way of writing. I’m sure you’ve found this to be as true as I have.
As I mentioned in my first column, I really value living – not just because it beats the alternative, but also because, from the slightly narrower perspective of writing, life provides the essential experience of the world that, combined with the craft of writing, helps make words and stories sing.
When truly awesome experience knocks on my door, I don’t want to sacrifice it. In fact, I feel like I can’t sacrifice it if I’m going to keep my writing fresh and relevant. But I do still want to find time – no, not just find time, but make time – to write. How?
There are two versions of ‘making time to write’ that have proven both possible and useful to me as a writer.
1. Habitual time
Carving out habitual time works like a journaling process for me: something that I do daily, as a matter of habit.
Lately I use my Instagram account for a lot of this (because, as I’ll mention later in the motivation section, a sense of accountability is also key for me and I find that the audience on Instagram is a ready-made reward system, giving me just enough feedback through likes and snarky comments to make my daily effort meaningful).
In my Insta-jottings, I try to focus on combining an image with some words, twisting those a bit, trying to use them to help me see things from a new – and especially from a positive – perspective.
This operates on three or four pretty beneficial levels: it gets my creative juices flowing; it reminds me daily that I can, and do, enjoy writing (so that when I sit down to produce more involved work the whole process doesn’t seem quite so daunting); and it builds a little bit of platform, putting my words and thoughts out there for others to share, to laugh at, and hopefully to love a wee little bit.
Also, personally, having struggled through some mild PTSD-related depression, the positive focus of this daily writing habit also forms a bedrock reminder of the joyful little moments of awesomeness in the world and in my life (bonus!).
2. Opportunity time
The second version of ‘making time to write’ is really when I get my bigger writing projects done. This I’ll call opportunity time.
If I have a dull hour at some point in my day, boom, I’m on it. I pull out one of the writing projects I’ve got going (I always have several), and I literally steal that dull or underutilized hour back for myself.
I love it when I can do that. It feels great, taking what might otherwise be wasted and turning that time into productivity. These periods also often result in a great head of steam, as the reclaimed hour often proves too short for the project but does manage to launch me. Then the writing can sometimes lead me into an evening or past a midnight, toward completion of the thought, phrase, article, or chapter. (Lately I’ve taken a special pleasure, in the cramped confines of airline seats, to elbow my neighbors away so that my 6’2” frame can lever itself over the keyboard enough to turn those misshapen hours into good opportunity writing time.)
Opportunity writing can also blur into habitual writing for me. For example, I wrote most of my first novel during lunch hours while I was a student at the Defense Language Institute. There my task was to study Arabic eight hours a day, every day, for almost a year and a half. My mind needed something else to focus on, needed to add a bit of creativity to that routine. Writing 30 minutes at a time every day for nine months provided me with that creative outlet, helped me feel super-productive, and allowed me to synthesize things I was learning in class as well, since the story of that particular novel focuses on a man trying to restart his life in a small town in Iraq.
I like to write in the middle of things and sometimes even add flavor to the writing through ‘found objects’ – hmmm, what color should my character’s shirt be? Ahhh, there’s a dude across the aisle wearing paisley.
The idea of ‘space’ for writing should also be mentioned. Space for me is both mental and physical. A place without a ton of distractions tends to be all I need (airline seat, coffee shop, etc.). Too quiet, actually, is bad for me. I like to write in the middle of things and sometimes even add flavor to the writing through ‘found objects’ – hmmm, what color should my character’s shirt be? Ahhh, there’s a dude across the aisle wearing paisley.
You’ll need to determine the external parameters of space that work best for you: fireside chair, park bench, coffee shop, museum seat, kitchen table, office, wherever in the physical world you can do the thing.
Physical space is one thing. The other aspect of space is mental space.
I use my writing like a bit of a buffer in my life. If the proverbial crappola is hitting the fan – socially, emotionally, at work, in raising my sons, even in the enjoyment and experience of life itself – then writing does tend to flex away from being my first priority. I prioritize it above other ‘filler’ activities, like TV or sports, but just slightly behind the activities of living well.
A clear head, but also an engaged mind and an invigorating physical locale are what tend to move my writing forward. It is self-affirming for me to be able to step back and give myself permission to stop writing for a while if conditions are not right, not right to write, knowing that if it isn’t right the writing will be trite, not tight, bright, or full of delight. (Also, it’ll probably have lots of accidental rhyme, which I detest).