Acts of Inspiration and Desperation: (Making) Helping It Happen on the Page

So you’re sitting there, staring at your screen. And it’s not happening. Ideas are soaring, ready to take shape. Words get jotted, but important links elude every attempt at capture. You want so badly to get it down, and after a while you feel like an idiot with so little in the way of tangible results.

Or another scenario: You’re sitting there, staring at your screen. A deadline is looming. It isn’t happening. Word by painful word you creep through a minefield. Knowing that it’s awful, paralytic caution stalls every aspect of your process. Your inner critic jeers: “You? A writer?”

Maybe there’s more than a little performance anxiety here. We “know intuitively” that “Other Writers Don’t Have to Struggle”, and we have a track record to uphold. We want to project a sense of proficiency and ease – an ambience of beauty, entertainment, or conviction that engages a reader. There’s that inescapable awareness of self embodied within our text, and text as representative of self. But already we’ve overstepped – how can there be readers if the writing doesn’t get finished?

We all know writing can be intense work, and that on occasion we must grind it out. Conscious of the 10% inspiration/90% perspiration formula, we force ourselves to “make” it happen. Given increased muscle tension and reduced circulation as we sit frozen at our keyboards, is it any surprise that we start feeling blocked?

So how do we avoid tying ourselves up in knots? How can we “help” it happen?

A clear understanding of our individual writing processes allows us build upon our strengths. Do you (e.g.):

  • outline?
  • web?
  • latch onto the energy of strong characters and images and follow where they lead? (the “pantser”)
  • problem-solve?
  • write quickly and produce a complete draft before revising? Donald Murray (The Writer, 1992) is an advocate: “I need to speed ahead of the censor and write so fast that my velocity causes the accidents of insight and language that make good writing.”
  • write slowly, savouring words – their sounds and textures, as well as their meanings – in an attempt to paint a clear picture from the start?

Self-knowledge, including expectations of yourself and knowing what gives you feelings of accomplishment, allows you to expand your comfort zone and to wean yourself from unproductive habits. Awareness of your writing environment is important. Where, and when, do you work best? Our bodies are part of the equation too. (One word should suffice: “Exercise!”)

A playful attitude can bring spontaneity to our writing. The links between play and creativity are many. Play, according to Frost, is spontaneous, intrinsically motivated, process oriented, and fun (“Toward an integrated theory of play”, 1985). Play and fear cannot coexist. Work, in contrast, may be forced, extrinsically motivated, and goal oriented. Writing falls somewhere between the two. If payment and deadlines are involved, we’re working, while writing for personal pleasure is a form of play. In both instances we can enjoy the excitement of inspiration, exploration and discovery that accompany the crafting of something new. At times we slip into “flow”      (Csikszentmihalyi), wholly immersed in what we’re doing and unaware of our surroundings. On these occasions we are “in the now”, a place the inner critic doesn’t go.

Many activities can empower our writing:

  • Free-associate – free-write, draw pictures, diagrams and maps of your topic. This can be liberating, and may provide further inspiration or direction for your story, poem, essay or play. Each piece, with its unique energy, may “know” things that you, the writer, don’t fully comprehend. (I sometimes ask questions of my characters, and find their “replies” are insightful. A friend asks her story what it needs.)
  • Morning pages and journal writing clear up mental and emotional clutter, opening more psychic space for creative work.
  • Exercise.
  • Make places where you can jot down random ideas (e.g., notes on the fridge, notebook on the car seat).
  • Pace yourself. Set a series of attainable deadlines. Isolate individual tasks; take quick action on the “small stuff”. Build in guilt-free rewards (e.g., a coffee break away from home; a social media break).
  • Vary your routines. H.G. Wells’ suggestion has merit: “If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”
  • Cultivate time for silences.
  • Envision your work as real.
  • Focus on “doing” rather than “trying”.

And there are some things to avoid:

  • Unnecessary compulsions (e.g., social media; email; computer games – which can be built in as mini-rewards, rather than allowing them to dominate.)
  • Excessive self-editing – we need trust our instincts as to when our piece is finally ready, and then let it go!
  • Negativity

When we write, we seek illumination and ready access to craft – but sometimes all we have is a flashlight, or maybe a 40 watt bulb in a large room. It might even be a firefly darting above the grass, at dusk. When we trust ourselves, our writing also becomes an act of faith.


Copyright Alison Lohans

This article was published in FreeLance in 2006.


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