Please welcome back today’s guest: former regular contributor Allison Winn Scotch!
I’m going to get to this straight away: I have had a really difficult time writing for the past year or so. Probably longer if I’m being truthful. Two years, maybe more. This hasn’t been a case of your typical writer’s block – the “I can’t write because I’m out of ideas or I don’t know how to put figurative pen to page.” This was writer’s agony borne from the chaos of our country, the endless news cycle, the anxiety that it bred in me. Since mid-2016, I’ve been tied to Twitter; I flip on CNN every night; I’ve walked through my days with a foreboding sense of both outrage and despair. And my writing has paid the price.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic. And I don’t mean to be political – I know we get enough of that everywhere these days, and no one logs onto Writer Unboxed to hear more of the same. And truly, it’s not about politics. It’s about writing and creativity and the toll that our unrelenting news cycle has taken out of me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write – though maybe I didn’t – it’s that I couldn’t focus on anything inspiring, anything that felt more important than the reality of our lives. Who cared about fiction when true life was draining enough? My brain was a sieve, nothing could be retained. Not to mention that my last book, BETWEEN ME AND YOU, was so arduous to write that I was depleted when I finally finished it. Emptied, tapped dry. In the whirlwind of everything, I couldn’t even imagine opening up Word and staring at a blank page again.
I tried. I really did.
I started one manuscript, then set it aside. I started another and wrote 100 pages, then rewrote them three times, and set that one aside. In between, I kept busy with other side projects, but I found myself saying things like, “Who says I have to write novels forever,” and “I don’t know if I have another one in me.” In an atmosphere marked with so much pessimism, I felt myself succumbing to its weight.
However, for my mental health, not even specifically for my writing, I started some new practices. I had to. What I was doing simply wasn’t sustainable. So:
- I limited my time on Twitter. I found (and find) it to be so triggering that checking in around the clock would occupy my mental energy for the rest of the day. And guess what? My phone alerts me to breaking news. I didn’t need to log on every second to see if the world was imploding. All of those tweets and all of that noise was still there when I did opt to plug back in (a few times a day rather than constantly).
- I started taking long walks. And I stopped listening to podcasts about the state of the world. In the past, running and walking while listening to music had always been my safe place for my creativity – no one talking to me, no one bothering me, just me and my thoughts and my characters and my story. I’d lost track of that during the past few years of chaos. I’d plug into Pod Save America or The Daily or any other podcast that would continue the cycle of my racing thoughts. How could I write well when my mind was always distracted with something else?
- I allowed myself to look around the world and absorb it and consider how this could shape a story I wanted to tell. I had to put myself at a distance from the turmoil to quiet my mind, yes, but also, by putting the chaos at a distance, I could look at it more objectively and allow it to spark my imagination.
With these tools in place, I awoke with a germ of an idea – one that was infused by today’s world – the MeToo movement and the Women’s March and the fight for equality and the anarchy and corruption and faith and hope that imbues our country – and I wasted not a minute in opening up Word and getting it down on the page. I refused to excuse myself – to screw around on the web while I drank my morning coffee, to skip my writing for a day. That was the pattern of my past year, but it couldn’t be the pattern of my future, if this book had any shot. No web surfing or Twitter or anything until I hit 1000 words. From there, I gave myself permission to walk away. I rarely did.
In fact, after a two-year writing drought, armed with the tools and limits I’d set and implemented, I found that I couldn’t stop writing.
I wrote two thousand words a day, then three thousand, then more. I’ve never written like that in my life. I was charged, imbued, almost — honestly – possessed. It turns out that I wasn’t actually blocked, only that I had to find the subject and the story that mattered to me in this moment, the one that I felt rose to the occasion in our current climate, the one that stood for something.
If you’re struggling right now, please know that so many of us are. Creativity rarely happens in a void, and I think it’s fair to say that many, many of us have tumbled down this black hole. What I would say is to do whatever you must to protect your quiet time, your reflective hours. It’s precious, and it’s more valuable than wasting your morning reading a politician’s Twitter rant. It just is. Then find the story that you want to tell now – maybe it’s one that you hope will empower your readers, maybe it’s one that you hope will comfort them, maybe it’s one that will provide a safe haven, an escape from the noise. God knows I’m reading more than ever now, and I’m grateful to all the authors who did put pen to page and provided me with a welcome, welcome distraction.
That germ of an idea, the one that was manna for my creative famine, sold a few weeks ago and will be published next summer. (News I haven’t shared yet! And hope to share more widely and with specifics soon!) It was the hardest book of my life, but only because it took so long to find the story. Once I found it – and mustered the tools I needed to both dig deeper and then get it on the page – it was the easiest. That process is ok. Your writing will get there too. Some things are worth the wait.
So, tell me: have you had a harder time writing as of late? And if so (or if not!), what are your strategies to get past it?