Have you ever had the nightmare where you’re doing your Leaving Cert again? You’re sitting at your desk, prepared – you’ve got this.
Except you don’t.
All around you other students are scribbling frantically, requesting extra paper – confident, knowledgeable, getting it done. Meanwhile, your mind and your pencil case are empty in equal measure, and you’re frozen with fear. Well, that’s what being a writer is sometimes like.
We live in a world of books. And other writers – and my God, but aren’t they writing? Bestsellers here, there and everywhere. And then there’s all that writers’ advice – urging us to ‘just do it’, don’t stop until you’ve done at least a million words, rise before dawn, no sleep ‘til Brooklyn, and so on – so much creativity will come, so much productivity. Bigly productivity.
But what if it’s not happening for you? What if, despite all the systems and persistence and desire in the world, you feel like you either can’t write a thing, or, when you do, it’s all wrong? Well here’s the thing – you’re not alone. From the greatest writers – Coleridge, Capote, Lee – to, undoubtedly, the most prolific word count tweeters, sometimes the words just dry up. Existing writers grow tired of the sounds of their own voices; new writers cripple themselves wondering if they will ever be good enough. It’s disheartening, frustrating, worrying. And it can be very scary.
When the time came for me to produce a fourth novel, in 2013, I felt full sure my writing game was up. I had ideas, but couldn’t seem to form words or a story out of them. Stumped by this mental blankness, and simultaneously buffeted by life events such as bereavement and the arrival of twins, my mojo couldn’t have been more gone if I’d packed it a suitcase, and handed it a round-the-world ticket.
So how does any writer get it back? How was I to get it back? It took four years, a finished novel that I withdrew from my publisher after submission, and a lot of banging my head off a brick wall to find out.
For what it’s worth, here is what I learned:
My first glimmer of hope was – and remains – that I do not want to stop being a writer. I knew I had to devise a way to be productive when nothing seemed less possible. I had to enable myself.
Firstly, I looked at my writing process and acknowledged that my daily timetable had changed radically from my other books and that I was trying to fit a new me into an old-me shaped schedule. Finding myself too exhausted to work at night, I rearranged my day where possible, so that I could write during the morning, when I was fresher. It is worth bearing in mind that the process that has served you for your last book or, indeed, your last ten, might suddenly not be the process that will work for this one and you need to alter it to ultimately achieve. It was a start.
Secondly, I pushed myself to write something every time I sat down to write – often less than the output I was used to, which I found frustrating. However, every time I set to work, I was gripped with foreboding, sure that whatever I managed would all be rubbish anyway, and often left the page as blank as it had been when I started. I persuaded myself that, even if it were only a paragraph, and a bad one at that – I must write something which could always be worked on later. After all, you can’t fix something without something to fix.
So, with a little to work with, I allowed myself a do-over. I went back to the very beginning of my manuscript and began all over again, giving myself a fresh start, using some of what I felt was worth salvaging from previous attempts, ruthlessly cutting other parts and coming up with new characters, storylines and approaches from scratch. There were sparks of magic, of satisfaction, but not a fire. So I went again, and again – ultimately, it took four re-writes in total of the first half of my book until I was satisfied enough to move on to the second half. It wasn’t fun. It was frustrating, and often boring, and challenging but in the long run, re-writing more than I ever had before paid off.
Thirdly, I stepped back from that thief of time, social media; paring down Facebook and uninstalling Twitter. As writers, we can feel obliged to follow and observe other writers, publishers and publications – which can be a fabulous source of advice, but can also be counter productive. All of the productivity and triumphant word counting of our peers can serve to remind us that we are, at that time, not productive, and not triumphant, leaving us feeling defeated or diminished – the Leaving Cert dream again. It is incredibly freeing to simply wipe that from your life.
There was one final thing that I did. Call it twee but it was the most effective of all. I simply cut myself some slack.
Being kind to myself didn’t come easily but, slowly, I stopped being so damn hard on myself. If I missed a day’s writing, or only achieved a couple of words which were sure to be deleted, I forced myself to take a ‘tomorrow’s another day’ approach and then tried again. I convinced myself that today’s problems could be next week’s solutions, that everything was fixable. I came to believe that what I was writing was ongoing, everchanging, and ever-changeable. I realised that being disciplined is not the same as being hard on yourself. You can be driven, but you
don’t have to run yourself down. Ultimately, I got there. It was a disorganised learning process – but that’s the thing about books – to each story, there is a story, and the story of finishing Ever This Day was one of struggle, but a
struggle that is by no means unique to any one writer nor, unfortunately, a one-off event in any writing career.
So when your writing mojo takes off – and it will – then take a deep breath and tell yourself that this is okay. This happens to everyone. Don’t panic, don’t punish yourself; persist quietly and remain positive. Be good to yourself.
Then just turn your page. See what happens next.
(c) Helen Moorhouse
About Ever This Day:
Little Frances slams the doors, and runs around the upstairs floors.
She ll steal your pen or touch your hair, when you re sure there s no one there.
The nuns are meant to keep her safe, but she gets out of her own grave.
So pull your covers over your head, Little Frances isn t dead …
On a bright spring day in London, Ria Driver sees a face she never thought she d see again. Coincidence? Or her past coming back to haunt her? Suddenly, Ria is plunged back almost thirty years, to the time she spent as Supervisor at the Convent of Maria Goretti, a rural Irish boarding school. And although she has tried her best to forget, the memories come flooding back. Cold, darkness, isolation, loss … fear. Fear of the sadistic Mother Benedicta and her cruel punishments. And fear of the noises … the humming, the footsteps, the knocking …What was the cause of the sounds from the attic? And who was the child who should not have been there?
As events unfold, Ria realises that she can leave the past behind no longer, that her story needs an ending. And to find it, she must go back to where she swore she d never go again.
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