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I’ve broken this post into two pieces: a) The Problem and b) Writing Experiments. Here’s The Problem.
Dear Ask The Escapery,
I know I have a novel in me, but I don’t know what to write about. Sometimes I feel like there are too many things to write about. Sometimes I look at all the writers I know with their long-form projects: their novels, plays, stories, poetry books that consume them completely, and I feel like that person drinking alone at the bar, waiting to fall in love.
Where’s my next story soulmate?
Ok. Full disclosure. This letter is from me. I wrote it at 2 am one day when I felt like I didn’t know what to write about. It’s a feeling that I get as a writer, when I’m between projects, or when I haven’t written for a while. It’s not block, exactly. Writer’s block is a hard surface you can bust your way through. Block is a border guard when you know where to go. Block is zombies. You can see them, you can grab your baseball bat and start swinging, it’s the most righteous workout in the world – not even just zombies, former evil dictator zombies. Block is proof that you’re a writer. Come and get it, zombies.
This feeling I’m talking about is more like a… nothing. Instead of Writer’s Block, I’m going to call it Writer’s Abyss.
Writer’s abyss is this: you become the old man at the bar. First you miss being in love. Then you forget what being in love feels like. Then you convince yourself it won’t ever happen to you. Then you convince yourself that love doesn’t exist, never did in the first place. Except, replace love with story/flow/inspiration/that feeling of falling through the page into a different dimension – not even the world of that story, the world where stories come from, the distant memory of which is why some of us write.
But these things don’t die. They just freeze. And love exists. Promise.
How do you unfreeze yourself? Let me start with two ways that don’t work at all.
Seriously, I have extensive experience in both these methods. I hope I can save you a week. Or a year.
- Bad Idea One: Falling into the Johnny-One-Story/ Johnny-No-Story/ Johnny-come-too-lately narrative. This is where you tell yourself that despite wanting to write you don’t have anything to say, or maybe you’ve already said it, or maybe there was ONE story and you wrote it when you were five, and that the artistic spirit is like a condom: if you’re lucky, you get to use it, or maybe it’ll just expire in your wallet. I call this the “Johnny One Story,” but you might know it as “everything’s already been done.” I could write an essay about how it’s untrue, but I’ll just short-circuit that by saying that every writer goes through it. Like Sherman Alexie. Like Coleridge. Like, hey, John Steinbeck: (seriously, read his diaries).
June 18: …I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…
- Bad Idea Two: Going in Head-First. By which I mean, trying to intellectualize a story/novel/idea, trying to come up with something original using your conscious brain. Ever been to a business meeting? A business meeting is when the boss pulls all the employees away from the important work they were doing and sits them around a table to stare at one another. Nothing good happens. When you try to intellectualize, you call a business meeting in your brain. You might sit around staring at one yourself. Or, you might come up with An Original Idea for a novel. “OH! I Got it! I’m going to write a verse pop up novel about corporate America and there’s going to be a body in there somewhere.” You write on that for about five pages, and it feels like Napoleon’s troops schlepping through the Russian winter.It’s no fun at all, because An Original Idea your front brain came up with is not connected to the parts of you that bleed.
So, what shall we try instead? Part II coming your way very, very soon.