Monday 5 April 2021

Hurdles IV - A Personal Insight into Writing by Robin James

While writing this post about what obstacles get in my way of writing, I was blocked by those very same obstacles. Because they were in my path, I could examine them fairly easily.

    Motivation ranks high and masks all other blocks to writing. I could clear my day, have my notes ready, and still end up staring at my laptop screen until it goes to sleep. Why can't I simply type out the ideas crammed in my head? I've carved out time in my day, I've got hastily written notes everywhere, writing should be easy. Never mind that my brain felt like a hurricane ripped through the filing department and left papers everywhere.

    This scatterbrained feeling had an easy fix: eat breakfast.

    After some trial and error, I learned that something fatty and laden with protein worked best. Other foods like fruit, cereal, or toast only sustain me long enough to get dressed. I needed to give my stomach something to do for a longer period. So, eggs cooked in a small puddle of butter won out. A pleasant side effect of a full stomach is a clear and focused mind. Good food fuels good brain activity, who knew?
Now that I've cleared my mind of the clanging bells of starvation, I can sit down to write, right?


    Another obstacle leaped onto the path and blocked the way. This one was much more frustrating. I'll sit in front of my laptop, ideas swirling in my head, and as soon as my fingers hit the keys my mind goes completely blank. Thanks, brain.

    This one was harder to work around. To make matters worse, it was intermittent. Sometimes I'll pound out 3,000 words in the blink of an eye. Other times I'm shocked to learn I only typed 150 after several hours of agonizing word selection.

    This is probably mental illness, I thought one day as the laptop went dark again.

    To be fair here, I have a nice bouquet of mental illnesses. I've learned that some of them require medication and others need to be managed. None are cured, not ever, so at least that part's consistent. Recognizing which one is getting in my way can be a hassle though.
Sometimes I need earplugs to block out every sound except my own heartbeat. Even the tiniest swoosh of a car driving by outside, or a woodpecker hammering away on the power pole, or the creak of the house as it shifts with the wind, will grab my attention and not let go. Earplugs narrow my focus immediately. 
Then, when the only noise is the roaring rush inside my head, I take a few deep breaths until the clamour falls away like leaves from a tree on a still, chilly autumn morning. Now, finally, I can translate the images from my head into words.

    Once I mastered the art of blocking out the external world – sometimes by blindfolding myself in addition to earplugs – I realized I needed a goal. Something where I can feel like a success which in turn will carry to the next day's writing session. Daily word count seemed to work for many, so I chose ten a day.

    This is a trick, one that my brain is aware of but still reacts positively towards. Ten words is nothing, it's a mid-sized sentence. It's a description of a garden, a cat's purr, or a child's laughter on a bright summer afternoon. It's a fix-it sentence to make the paragraph clearer, it's an added line of dialogue, it's the infusion of emotion into a scene.

    But it's also a start. Ten words is an easy goal to attain, a simple one to leap past. Ten words opens the floodgates in my mind and pours more words through my fingers. Ten words is also a place to stop when I can barely think, barely function, barely conjure up a phrase worth noting.

    So I figured out that my body needs food for my brain to work, distractions must be be banished, and easily attainable goals to get going. Now I can focus on corralling anxiety.

    This shrill witch sits in every corner of every room, slips into every shadow, and grips my belly for its own stability. Anxiety doesn't whisper, it shrieks, but only at a volume I can hear. It's voice twists my gut, freezes my skin, and sends electricity through my veins.

    Two solutions exist for me.

    The first is to either go for a walk or stretch. Anxiety is a physical sensation, causing a fight/fight/freeze sensation. So a physical response is sometimes needed. Sometimes this helps and I can get on with my day. Other times, well, I talk to it.

    For every scream, I have a calm counter. Nobody will like my book? A few people will. I'll be judged harshly? No worse than what I've endured to date. I'll get horrible reviews? Yes, very possibly. And some good ones too, I hope.

    This is a hack I learned young. Rather than allow the anxiety to berate me into immobility, I answer all the questions raises. If there is an answer, that means there's a solution, which means I can take steps to solving the problem. A lot of questions begin with “What if,” and so the best answer is, “Then this”.

    With anxiety wrangled into submission, or at least down to a dull roar, I realized that consistency breeds success in my life. I can set a routine for anything and keep the routine long after I've given it any thought. This can be good, but also dangerous. It's easy to set up a routine to eat chocolate while parked on the couch and staring at the television. I can do this once or twice and it becomes something I did for five, ten, fifteen years.

    Setting up routines for difficult activities is much harder.

    I love writing so much. But writing is hard. It takes effort. A lot of effort. Sort of like exercising. I like going for a walk, but it's hard to get motivated to do it when it's bitterly cold outside. Writing is similar. I enjoy it, but it's hard to get motivated when the idea pool is a dust bowl.

    So, a routine needed to be created. After my preset morning routine, I sit down at the laptop and write. Only ten words, yes, but still, I sit down at the same time every day, like a job.

    The more I thought of writing as a job, the more successful I was at keeping the routine. I'm hardwired to want to complete tasks for rewards but learned I need an external boss to keep me in check. So I made myself the boss of me and issued a command: write on workdays, write until the goal is achieved, write nonsense if necessary.

    Ah yes, on to the next obstacle: writer's block. This is more accurately described as 'creative block' as any person creating anything is occasionally blocked. Not knowing what to write will cause me to stare into space and daydream the hours away.

    But daydreaming isn't conducive to completing a novel. It has its place, yes, but not if it's writing time. So I occasionally write nonsense. I'll describe the unrelenting whir of the space heater, or describe a previous coworker as if they're a character in a book. Maybe write stream of consciousness posts, or what I ate for dinner last night. Anything, really, just nonsense. But none of it counts toward my word count.     

    That goal is specific to the novel I'm writing.

    So after some nonsense to unlock the words, I'll wrap it up and immediately dive into writing my book. Words are already flowing by that point, all I need to do is choose the right ones in the right order to move my story along.

    None of the above will banish the obstacles. Nothing ever will. If one disappears another will take its place because nature abhors a void. But at least I can diminish the blocks so I can hop over them instead of trip and fall into them.

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