Finding my way out of the writing slump, one word at a time…


I’ve been in a bit of a slump… a writing slump, that is.  My inner critic has collaborated with my inner perfectionist, and their team work has resulted in a complete slowdown of my words making it to the paper process.  I’ve got the words, they just seem to be struggling at making their appearance.

Ann Patchett says in her book,  A Perfect Marriage,  that she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as writer’s block and that we pull those words out as an excuse for times that we perhaps aren’t being as diligent as we need to be in getting those words onto the paper, once and for all.  While in agreement, I also have to wonder why at times the words seem to flow with tidal wave strength yet other times putting together the words for a thank you note seems to be a tedious struggle for me.   It’s the same brain both times, yet it certainly doesn’t feel like it to me.  It feels like there is a bit of brain hijacking coming into play.

It’s so easy for me to lose myself in a creative project when I’m having success, but when I’m struggling, the minutes tick off slowly while my mind begins to make the list of other more pressing things I should be doing —  you know, important stuff like ordering vitamins online or sewing that button on the shirt I haven’t worn in 2 years or that bi-annual urge to clean out the garage that never looked messy or dirty or disorganized until the moment my creativity decides to go on break.  Whether with writing, painting, photography, knitting or any creative endeavor, the feeling of losing myself in the hours is blissfully wonderful and because it’s fleeting and unexpected, I feel like I’ve got to not only honor its presence, but treat it with utmost care and attention as I know this creature and I know it can leave as fast as it arrived.  This is the part about writing that I hate.  It’s also the part that I love and the part that continually nudges me to keep trying because I know how good it feels when everything comes together and I feel like I have something to say, regardless if I have someone to read it.

During my first year of college, while living in the dorm, the first thing I’d do when I had to write a big paper, was to clean my half of the room.   This always surprised my roommate, who had a more relaxed standard of tidiness, which included an ongoing collection of half-eaten meals under her bed along with an assortment of glasses and cups that once emptied, became ash trays.  Then there were the clothes… you get the idea.  I really did like my roommate and feel like I did well on the pot luck of the dorm roommate lottery,  but our ideas of what our living conditions should look like varied immensely and we both thought the other strange for her habits.   When she’d see me begin the familiar process of cleaning, organizing and re-stacking the stacks, she knew without asking that my next step would be to haul out Tippy (my typewriter with 3 legs, hence the name) and begin to work.  My sister, Susan, goes through the same routine before she cooks a special meal.  I understand this ritual completely.  In some odd way this process gives the task at hand so much more appreciation, while the freeing up the clutter and mess feels like erasing the chalk board and readying it for something new and fresh.  A blank canvas, a clean chalk board or kitchen counters that are free of clutter all seem to be a good way to begin something.  If you’ve got even a thread of perfectionist in you, this will make sense to you.  Of course Susan also cleans the kitchen post meal, but that cleaning doesn’t hold the importance or significance of the getting ready,  “pre-clean” that takes place.  That being said, I’ve cleaned and organized my space countless times the past few months and have sat behind Tippy’s replacement all ready to type but can’t seem to get past a few sentences that then go into a draft file.  I know the gig as I’ve gone down this road before, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’m continually amazed by how easily ideas come to me once I step away from my method to record them, ie my computer.  I’ve come up with ideas, metaphors, strings of words and thought provoking ideas while out hiking, walking in my neighborhood or most recently, while riding the ski lift at Copper Mountain.  I was working with a ski instructor yesterday and after a successful run with him when all that he was trying to instruct me on seemed to magically click, he told me he saw the light bulb go off on the top of my ski helmet while we were riding the lift.  He was right.  It went off alright, and it was as bright as the CO sun, but it had nothing to do with me finally understanding the tweaks he was trying to make with my form as I skied down the mountain under his observation.  I wasn’t about to tell him that though,  the him who was a good, patient effective instructor who was making great progress with me.  The light bulb went off because I had an idea of what I needed to write about… finally… and it came as such a relief to me that there was no holding it back and that light bulb moment shined right through my red helmet.  Of course once I had returned home, with my computer in front of me, the idea’s substance  had dissipated to a scattering of bits and pieces with nothing to hold them together, but it did make an initial appearance to me so I know it is in there somewhere waiting to be recaptured when we both are ready.  I once tried to follow a friend’s suggestion to carry a small recorder with me for such moments of inspiration, which I did,  eventually replacing it with the recording feather on my phone.  When I would listen to what I had recorded during those shining moments of inspiration, my words never sounded like the image I had in my mind.  Rather, it sounded more like a shopping list than an inspiration.  The energy of the words that swirled around my mind with potential,  lost most of their energy once they were put into verbal bullet points.  It is better than nothing I suppose, yet it’s not the same as having the opportunity to wrangle those ideas into words the second they form in my mind with a keyboard at the ready (said the perfectionist part of her…).

Several years ago, I heard Jacquelyn Mitchard speak about the writing her first novel The Deep End of the Ocean, and how the entire novel came to her in a dream and once awake, she wrote down the dream, literally word for word and voila!  She transformed her dream into a best selling novel!  Although I doubt it was quite as quick and easy as I’ve worked it around in my mind to be, I’m still continually amazed by her process and more than once have fallen asleep with visions of nocturnal creating dancing in my head.  I usually do wake up with a slight memory of my dreams, especially the powerful ones, and have learned that if I don’t grab onto it, the very second my eyes open, it will fade quickly into a handful of scenes that have no connection to one another, in time or in space and their irrelevance only seems to become magnified when I try to share it with someone else.   The essence is there, but the details are random and hardly worthy of a book, let alone anything more than a sentence.  It’s a gift though, when on occasion those unrelated bits and pieces of my dreams will present themselves to me at a later time when all of a sudden they make sense  and have relevance to something that’s going on in my life.  If I can’t dream up bestselling novels,  a bit of personal relevance with maybe a lesson at hand,  is the next best thing.  I had the repeated dream the week before my hysterectomy that I was pregnant and because I had had a hysterectomy and no longer had a uterus, I had to carry the growing fetus around in a basket, which looked oddly familiar to the breadbasket I use for family dinners.  If that wasn’t an indicator of stuff my mind was processing during my sleeping hours, I’m not sure what is.  It was hardly best selling novel worthy, but it did give me pause to think about what was going on in my mind that maybe I wasn’t quite ready to face during my waking hours.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, talks about the creative process and her ways of attracting and keeping it by her side when she needs it, which is kind of all the time.  She says she’s even been known to shower, put on nice clothes and even a swipe of lipstick, that she claims never to wear otherwise, simply to get in the mood to write or to attract the creativity to her…. however you choose to look at it.  It makes sense to me.  Whatever rituals one must go through to help give the process a bit of a push forward seems like fair game to me.

With that in mind, Elizabeth Gilbert, I see your nice clothes and your lipstick and I raise you one…. one wedding dress. And to that wedding dress, who has already made an appearance in my blog several posts ago,  I say let’s get dressed up and get busy.  It’s time to start writing again.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.