Good news, Readers: I’ve been given a new writing deadline.* How badly did I need a deadline? Very. I’ve been out of my writing groove, a direct result no doubt of launching a book about finding my writing voice. Life loves irony.
I’ve been doing more talking about writing in the last six months than I’ve done, well, ever. It’s been a lot of talking and a lot of work (but not much writing!), and it’s been an amazing joy and privilege. I’ve met emerging writers online and in person from numerous countries and walks of life and gotten to share a stage with three writers who provided a good heft of the inspiration for the book Writing Is My Drink: Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott.
One of the questions participants at both Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive and Bird by Bird & Beyond posed to Cameron, Goldberg and Lamott: What do YOU do when YOU get stuck? All three of these writers famous for inspiring others said that they did, in fact, use their own advice to get back to the page. Cameron does her “morning pages,” Goldberg does her timed “writing practice,” and Lamott writes her “shitty first drafts.”
Although I give lots of advice about how to get yourself to the page in Writing Is My Drink, one thing I left out was what I did when I got stuck writing the book itself. I don’t think it occurred to me to include that story. Maybe it would’ve seemed too metafictional to say, “Actually, Readers, I’m having trouble finding my voice right now!” But I did, in fact, get quite stalled about three months after I signed the book contract. I got very trumped up by the idea that I was being paid to write the book and was what I had to say “worth it.” So, uh, I actually stopped writing. Days clicked by, flying off the calendar as they do in cartoons that depict time whizzing by. And, yes, the more time that went by the antsier I got because then my brain started calculating how many words I would have to write a day if I were to complete the book on time. Really scary types of thinking! So did this scary thinking make me write? Nope. Being scared never makes me write.
So I did the thing I do when I can’t write: I returned to my love of writing. I asked myself what book had brought me joy last. The answer: One Hundred Demons by the divine Lynda Barry. So I got in bed with that book and I read it and reread it. I felt my tremendous gratitude for Barry, gratitude that she existed, gratitude that she thought to write such a book. Usually, this type of gratitude (unlike fear) IS the thing that will coax me back to the page. But this time there was a snag: One Hundred Demons is a graphic memoir. So, um, instead of being inspired to get to the keyboard, I found myself standing in the art supply store salivating over fine tip Sharpies and paper so smooth it would make you weep. And yes, next I was at home DRAWING. Not my plan, not my plan at all. Pages flying off calendar, guilt mounting.
I’m wasting time! I thought to myself. But then, I just went with it because…because I didn’t really have a choice. Writing wasn’t available to me. But doing rudimentary cartoon drawings of the characters from Writing Is My Drink for some reason was. So I kept at this work of hamfisting out my stick figures in comic book storyboards and coloring them until finally I tossed the sketch pad aside and said, “Fuck this! I can’t draw well enough to convey the stories I want to tell.” But by then urgency to communicate my ideas had built up so much that I could no longer resist writing …and so, yes, I began rapidly scribbling out the stories my cartoons couldn’t portray.(And yes, I handed the book in on time and was not, in fact, burned at the stake or sued for breach of contract).
As happy as I am now to have this new deadline, I found myself stalled out the other day over how to write the story the way I want to write it. And then my mind turned to pens, to paints, to color, and I found myself sitting in the sunlight, playing with paints instead of writing, but then somehow the love of painting reminded me of my love for writing and that brought me back to here, where I belong.
* I’m writing an essay version of the series Alienated Youth Is My Drink for an upcoming anthology of coming of age stories. Yay!
Next on Drink: Readers of Writing Is My Drink have been sending me their 26-Minute Memoirs. I will be posting them over the next couple of weeks.
On the one had it is comforting to read how professional writers like yourself get stuck, on the other hand, knowing that can be very intimidating to us amateurs. Being reminded to go back to morning papers or the 26 minute memoir formats is very helpful. The other tools I use is writing letters. Sitting and writing a real letter (on email) to someone is very helpful for me to get my juices flowing some days. And sometimes I send it and sometimes i don’t.. Thanks for sharing your journey–it is inspiring!
LOVE this piece, Theo. I teach Intro to Memoir at Seattle Central CC Continuing Ed and I will share it with my students. Thank you for the inspiration!
Great, thank you!
I loved this honest account of your experience as a writer. It serves as inspiration and encourgament to aspiring writers. Thanks.
Your book (and blog) are what finally coaxed me out of my cave, and gave me the courage to register for classes to pursue a BA in Creative Writing. Thank you for being, well, you. [Insert cheesy, obligatory “Please stop by my blog if you have time” request here: GetToKnowSamantha.blogspot.com ]
Thanks so much for sharing this with me, Samantha. When I was anticipating the publication of WRITING IS MY DRINK and the subsequent reviews, I decided that the only review of the book that really mattered was a reader saying, “Because of I read this, I started to write or to feel more confident.” So hearing this makes my day. Best of luck with your studies and writing!
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I enjoyed this post a lot, as well as your book, WRITING IS MY DRINK. When I am stuck, I find ways to simplify more. As evident in my blog, simplifying my physical (as well as mental) space reignites my creativity. It literally and metaphorically clears the space for the muse to enter.