Feeling Good About Being Stuck

It seems somehow ominous that the week after I reduced my weekly word-count minimums in order to better accommodate my teaching schedule, I did not write any words in my novel. I was stuck. The book is in the critical transition from Part 1 to Part 2, from angry to timid, from Florida to Texas, and from a childhood shaped by weather to an adulthood shaped by war and revolution. The scope of the changes have me gobsmacked. Add my fall teaching load. Add that new short story I wrote, which needs a revision, which I'm planning to get into the submission cycle ASAP. So, man, I'm stuck.

Yesterday, a friend, who also writes, tweeted out about his frustration at having not written a meaningful word in his own manuscript in two weeks. It was a confession, a terrible, incomprehensible shame he was getting off his chest. (I may be misrepresenting him by emphasizing HIS DEEP AND UNENDING SHAAAME, but listen: I've got a payoff at the end of this post I'm building to here, and I won't let a little thing like severely mischaracterizing my friend get in the way of setting it up). He's at a critical narrative turn and made a choice he does not trust. He's stuck on it. Getting stuck is going around, apparently. Might be airborne? If you're a writer, just try not to breathe too much when you're around us and you should be fine.

I'm choosing not to fall into a pit of despair about this, which is part of my new and ongoing mission to 1) celebrate my incremental accomplishments, and 2) go easy on myself when I'm not perfect. Hell: I wrote 55,000 brand new words in less than two months while working without incident nearly every weekday. I can survive an unproductive week or two. But this whole being stuck thing is still an interesting problem. I have ambivalent feelings about writer's block, and a lot of the advice I see about getting unstuck boils down rather unhelpfully to "just kick yourself in the butt and do it, jerk." I have ambivalent feelings about that, too.

So what are my feelings?

See: Writer's block is not a thing. No. Wait. I mean, it is totally a thing.

This isn't a great start. Okay. I think there's a way of thinking about writer's block that is a fantasy on par rather with a lot of fantasies about the inner lives of artists. (I nearly wrote the apoplexy inducing word "creatives" there to be sarcastic about it, but. God. No. Never.) Chuck Wendig has a pretty good takedown of the starving artist fantasy, and I think the fantasy about writer's block is tied to it, as though creative production is a form of imagination bending that flows freely when the artist's vision is pure and unhindered by things like outside influence, or food, or money, and stops up like an agonized, tortured dam at the slightest interruption.

Writer's block is really just a loss of productivity, the same as you might experience at any job except magnified by the problem that there's no guarantee of being compensated for your work. Imagine the things that regularly reduce your productivity at regular work: anxiety, life changes, being tired, your other job. Now imagine the monetary incentive that tells you "reduced work is better than staying home and being fired" doesn't exist.

That's writer's block.

And maybe that happens to you at regular work and you think, "I've got some PTO built up. I'll just take a week and reload."

That's also writer's block. That's the writer's block I'm dealing with. The scope of my story is making me anxious about my abilities to execute it. I'm tired. I'll have a week or two right now to recharge, and then I'll still be on pace to finish the draft in late 2015 or early 2016. That's good.

I would, of course, like very much to not be cashing in on my non-paid time off here. I'm not sure that's going to happen in this case. I might just need the recharge, and for once in my life I'm going to accept it, because I suspect being okay with a break, rather than agonizing over it the way I have traditionally done, will make it far easier to come back from.

Because here's the other thing: There is a school of thought among writers that you just need to sit down and write. You just need to do it. If you're stuck, you just need to sit there and force yourself to be unstuck. Write, damn it. It's tough because, yeah, you need to write. Those 100,000 words don't get written by themselves, and there's no magic pill for it except to be sitting down and writing for the literally hundreds of hours that it takes to write and revise that many words. But, man, that's a torturous, masochistic approach. It's what's called a deficit-based approach, an approach that uses failure as its premise. If you don't just sit down and write, you fail, and there is no success tier because just sitting down and writing all the time, no matter what, is the minimum standard of acceptability.

Everything I've been doing that has actually led to actual increased productivity this year has to do with escaping deficit-based structures and implementing asset-based ones. I don't start by establishing the failure criteria. I don't find reasons to feel bad about my writing or my productivity. I find reasons to feel good about it. See: looking at my writing block as a failure to write is deficit-based. It starts with the lack of productivity, and leaves me feeling bad about it. But looking at my writing block as a short vacation is asset-based. It starts with the productivity: "I've done a lot of work, which merits a week." That makes me feel good. And it is much, much harder to start writing again when I feel bad than it is when I'm feeling good. So I don't feel bad that I got stuck last week, and might be stuck this week. I feel good about taking a vacation after, basically, winning my own personal NoWriMo. I feel good about giving myself time to assess my characters and my world. I feel good about feeling out the balance between my paid work and my creative work now that the two are in a bit of conflict.

It's awful, but it took me 30 years to figure it out: Being an artist is easier not only when I feel good about my art, but when I seek out reasons to feel good about my art. Just like being starving is a bad way to be an artist, so is being miserable all the time.