Writing through the Storms of Life
Writing well requires an enormous amount of concentration and energy, plus a decent dose of self-confidence and courage. It’s not like making widgets on an assembly line, where your mind can wander while your hands stay busy producing.
For that reason, even “normal” amounts of stress can freeze your writing fingers. I use “normal” to mean those stresses that come to us all at times: sick children, fights with a spouse, financial problems, etc. These storms of life are common, but not necessarily easy to ignore so we can write. [For help with more serious issues, see “Writing after Major Losses” about breaking blocks after more serious stressors like death, divorce, and job loss.]
To write during “normal” stressful times, try these techniques to get going:
First, inventory your life experiences to create a list of topics to write about. When burned out, or you feel stumped for something to write about, ask yourself questions like, “What has bugged me that I’ve been able to handle effectively?” or “What have I learned from this experience?” From this come articles that make a difference in people’s lives—whether it’s teaching them the healing power of laughter or just helping them to decorate on a shoestring.
Then make an inventory of your life experiences. (My first Writer’s First Aid book has a section called “Getting to Know You” which gives you such an inventory to use.) What have you learned in the school of hard knocks? As writer Marshall Cook said, “You have a great pool of living to dip into for your writing. You’ve met scores of different people. You’ve been scores of different people.” Use that!
Second, switch from output goals to time goals. At least for a while, switch from a set number of pages per day to hours spent writing. (“I will write for one hour;” not “I will produce five pages.”) Skip the daily quota pressure until life settles down. (Or skip it altogether, as I ended up doing.)
Third, schedule your writing time, but be flexible. Sounds contradictory, but it’s not. Do schedule writing time, as usual. Strive to keep that appointment, no matter what else is going on in your life. But be flexible; if your time is taken by a bedridden father or an emergency call from your daughter’s school, attend to the urgent event, but carve out the writing time later in the day, even if it’s in three or four smaller pieces. Overcome the tendency to think, “My writing time is shot today—I’ll try again tomorrow.”
Fourth, develop a specialty. In stressful times, you often become an expert on your situation. Over the years, I’ve collected extensive libraries on personal recovery, remarriage, writing, quilting, the Civil War, England, and devotional books. You probably have your own collections.
Capitalize on the information you’ve absorbed. Do more research, and slant ideas many ways: for fiction and nonfiction, for children and adults. (Example: if you provide care for a bedridden father, you might write an inspirational piece for adults on having the strength and patience to do it; or a how-to piece for a family magazine on finding the best home health care for an invalid; or a children’s article on how to make visits to elderly grandparents a joy to both child and grandparent; or a middle-grade novel that includes living with a bedridden grandparent.
Fifth, be yourself. Use your life experiences to express your unique vision of the world and insights into life. Those insights become your style, that special something that is yours alone—voice.
You’re not alone in finding it difficult to write some days. But when the dark days pass, you’ll be very glad you continued to work even when it was hard. When the sun comes out again, you’ll be thankful that you spent that time growing as a writer. Then it will be full-steam ahead!
Write Your Life—ALL of It!
Writers are told to follow their passion, to write stories and books that move them deeply. Often those very stories come to us in uncomfortable or painful ways, through stressful circumstances in our lives we’d gladly bypass.
Twenty-seven years ago, after my dad died, I tried to finish writing a fun puzzle-type mystery. Even though I’d had several middle-grade mysteries published by then, I just couldn’t finish it. Instead, I chucked that idea finally and wrote The Rose Beyond the Wall, a middle grade book where the young heroine’s favorite grandmother dies from cancer.
I cried when I wrote that book, and I cried when the grandmother died. But the book about how people deal with grief was from the heart. It sold first in hardcover to Atheneum, then to paperback book clubs, and was nominated for several children’s choice awards. It’s still used in some hospice programs, although it’s only available as a reprint from an obscure publisher that brought it back into print ten years ago.
“We may regret our circumstances,” says William Stafford, “and no doubt many of us should. But the way toward a fuller life in the arts must come by way of each person’s daily experience.”
Write Through Circumstances
Why use our personal experiences? Our daily lives are full of concrete details, raw emotion, lots of issues, drama, and dialogue. It’s a shame not to use it all! And if you want to write authentic, moving stories that ring true, it’s the best source of material.
In Walking on Alligators: a Book of Meditations for Writers, Susan Shaughnessy suggested this:
“The way to a fuller life in the arts is through your own experience today. Many of us are in circumstances no one would choose. Loneliness, physical disability, financial want, disappointment--we long to escape from these things that won’t ‘let us write.’ But we escape by writing right toward them and right through them, not by trying to go around.”
Take an Inventory
For the last year or so, there’s been something really bugging me that I can’t fix, and it won’t go away. I’ve done everything I can to just accept it and forget about it—but I can’t. I finally realized this summer that until I fictionalized it and wrote about it, it probably wouldn’t leave me alone. So I’m writing about it now. And believe me, as heated as the subject makes me, I’m writing this with a lot of passion!
What’s going on in your own life that’s unwelcome, yet might lend itself to a story or novel? Think about your own life, and also the lives of your children, neighbors, spouse, and friends. What is causing you (or them) problems today? What about these issues makes you angry—or sad? What are you learning in your circumstances? Whatever it is, consider writing about it!
Remember: the way to write authentic stories is to write straight toward them—and through to the other side!EXCERPT FROM MORE WRITER'S FIRST AID