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Dear Story Nurse,
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life has been when revising and editing my own stories. Unfortunately, I need to produce some kind of draft before I can start polishing, and that has started to feel near impossible to me.
I’m trying to resume writing after several years hiatus due to a tumultuous life event and emotional fallout that left me with no energy to spare for creative pursuits. Now that my mental wellbeing has improved and day to day life has become much less stressful, I’d like to do something nice for myself and have fun writing again. I’ve set aside some hours at my preferred time just for that, and my partner is being wonderfully encouraging.
However, I find myself treating what’s supposed to be an opportunity for creative play as if it’s a chore I’m trying to put off long enough to forget about entirely. I feel like I have no clue what comes next, struggle to commit to what thin threads I have, and both my freewriting and outlining attempts too often turn into long agonizing sessions of tensing my imagination into immobility as I attempt to Make A Really Cool Idea Happen Right Now.
Previously, I mostly wrote romantic vignettes and notes for potential storyworlds without much for plot. I’m trying to resume writing similar short scenes as well as outlining a romantic fantasy novel very loosely based on some earlier work, though plot remains as elusive as before. I’ve considered trying to write nonfiction or a different type of fiction to attempt to get unstuck and perhaps find “what I’m really meant to be writing”, but I still end up unhappily mired early into the “what shall this specifically be about” stage and just end up feeling more directionless than ever. I’ve also spent some time trying to do stream of consciousness warm-up writing, but that has yet to help me produce anything beyond a lot of lines about “I don’t know what to write.”
Any advice for getting through the initial decision and drafting stages for those of us who feel like the fun comes after?
—Stuck at the Start
Dear Stuck at the Start,
I get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time by doing years’ worth of writing all at once. You’re trying to write beginnings with your head full of middles and endings and plots and “is this idea good enough” and pressure pressure pressure. You also mention that you love editing and revising, which explains why you’re critiquing your drafts before they even exist. Your brain is desperately trying to escape the pressure by retreating to the part of wordcraft that feels enjoyable and happy and safe. Alas, that part can’t happen until you have a draft, and so the pressure to create a draft increases. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get out.
You have a lot in common with letter writer #6, so I recommend you read that post on returning to writing after a long hiatus. In fact, go read that now, and then come back for some advice tailored to you.
Ready? Here we go.
Figure out why—and whether—you want to write. If you don’t enjoy writing, why do it? What are you getting out of this? If all you really want to do is edit, you can always edit someone else’s work. Right now it sounds like writing makes you miserable. You may not be ready to come back to writing yet, or you may have changed such that writing is no longer an enjoyable thing for you. If it hurts when you do that, you are allowed to stop doing that.
If you still want to write even after you let go of any feelings of being obligated to write, take some time to think about why. What makes writing so important to you? What’s motivating you to keep doing it? Are there ways to access those motivations and keep them in the front of your mind so you can gain some satisfaction and joy from them?
Declare amnesty. Forgive yourself for those years of not writing. Accept that you cannot write double-quick for the next however many years to make up for them. You can’t have ideas that are twice as cool to make up for the ideas you didn’t have or couldn’t write. You can’t retroactively make writing have happened; it didn’t happen and that’s how life is.
When you think about all the writing you didn’t get to do, you may feel sad or angry at yourself or angry at others or frustrated or any number of other things. Let yourself feel those feelings so you can move on from the situation that caused them. Trying to bury your feelings under a pile of words won’t work, and will just make you feel worse.
You have to let go of the past before you can move forward. Do whatever you need to do for that to happen, whether that means studying Zen, going to therapy, or buying yourself a little chalkboard necklace pendant so you have a literal blank slate. Once you’re able to really be here now, and write from and for the now, you will have a much easier time.
While you’re there, preemptively forgive yourself for the days in the future when you don’t write. There will be many of those days, and that is totally allowed.
Give yourself permission to be a beginner again. Your skills are rusty. That’s completely understandable given your long break. Don’t expect to be able to pick up right where you left off. It may help to try doing the kind of writing you did when you were just getting started. Did you write fanfic or poetry, or keep a diary, or create one-shot four-panel comics, or create a fictional world and wander around in it? Returning to your early practice, whatever it was, may help you get into the less judgmental, more creative space. You said you want to “have fun writing again.” What made writing fun, back when it was fun?
I also recommend spending some time with beginner writers, especially kids. Young children have no idea what stories are supposed to be like, so they’re perfectly happy to create stories that don’t make sense. It sounds like you could use some of that liberation from notions of cool ideas and satisfying plots and stories that are About Something and also probably Meaningful. If you hang out with beginners (of any age) and let yourself appreciate their work uncritically, it will help you also appreciate your own work uncritically.
Practice heartfelt spontaneity. Your letter suggests that all your approaches to your writing are 100% intellectual; where’s the space for you to have emotions? Instead of “I don’t know what to write,” start those freewriting exercises with “I feel _____.” Instead of stressing about concepts and plots, create characters with a focus on their emotions: what they want, what they fear, what they love, what they worry about. This is particularly important if you’re writing romantic stories. As you write those characters, deliberately and explicitly draw on your own emotions and emotional experiences. If a character falls in love, remember what it was like to fall in love with your partner. If a character is disappointed, flavor that scene with the agony of your own disappointments.
Here’s an exercise based on improv theater that may help you get more in touch with your characters’ hearts. Create two characters, or pick some from media that you know and love. Put them in a room, or at a bus stop, or on a spaceship, or in any other setting you like. Give them a conflict of some kind: one wants something the other has, for example. Then envision them interacting, with improv rules: neither one can walk away from or directly contradict the other. (What that means for you as a writer is that once a character says “Wait a minute, you’re the person I saw at the coffee shop!” you can’t then go back and make it a movie theater. Forward motion only.) This gives rise to very intimate scenarios driven by personalities and feelings.
If you’re having trouble coming up with a premise, wander around in Plotto until you find some two-person interaction that appeals to you. See my post on where characters come from for tips on character creation. But for the purposes of this exercise, you really can just pick any two people and any setting and any conflict and run with it. An orchestra conductor… and a zookeeper… are on the Staten Island Ferry… jostling for the best view of the Statue of Liberty. Go!
The envisioning is very important. Right now you’re driving yourself into the ground trying to be creative, so ditch creativity altogether and become a narrator, simply describing what’s happening between those two people in that place. You’re not writing their dialogue or body language; you’re writing it down.
Let go of preconceived ideas about what writing is or should be. Lots of writers don’t know what they’re “meant to be” writing. (You are your own muse. Meaning and intention come from within you, not from outside.) Lots of writers don’t know what their work is about until they complete it and read through it and spot the themes. Lots of wonderful work comes from ideas that sound kind of boring at the elevator-pitch stage. There are so many, many ways to write. All of them are available to you, if you allow yourself to explore them.
Also, you’re a different person than you used to be, so writing is going to be different for you than it used to be. Keep an open mind as you learn what kind of writer you are now.
If you’re struggling with the question of whether your work is creative enough, give yourself permission to be derivative. Every work of art is derivative. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But seriously, why write? That’s the question at the heart of all of this. Until you know why you’re doing this, you’re just torturing yourself for no reason. Ideally you will find a way for writing not to be torture at all, but if it continues to be hard and unfun, at least you’ll know why you’re putting yourself through that, and you’ll be able to keep an eye on that cost/benefit analysis and step away if the costs start (or continue) to outweigh the benefits.
I want to be very clear that I’m not saying “You, Stuck at the Start, should stop writing.” There’s no should here. If you decide you really value writing and want to keep doing it, I support that wholeheartedly. I just want to make sure you’re enthusiastically consenting to writing, and not merely putting up with it because you think you have to.
I often sign my letters “Happy writing!” and I mean it especially literally in your case. I hope you find ways to feel really, really happy about writing. And if it turns out that’s not an option, I hope you find plenty of other ways to feel really, really happy.