Sammi Soutar, former business owner and investigative journalist, has taught creative writing and facilitated writers’ groups and roundtables. She is currently revising her first novel and tells me she keeps a copy of Around the Writer’s Block with her at all times.
But that’s not why I invited her to share this post with us. I invited her because she knows how the joy of writing can spin into a “fishtail around roadblocks that make the writing seem more an obstacle course than an occupation” and most importantly how to get through the obstacle course back to the joy.
For most of my writing life, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with my muse. Social media coined a phrase for this: “It’s complicated.” I go back and forth between the fear that “the end is nigh” and the hope that “the best is yet to come.”
Fear has ever been my biggest stumbling block. Over time, incessant chatter from Monkey Mind, my internal saboteur, convinced me that I wasn’t a writer, would never be a writer, wasn’t good enough, smart enough, knowledgeable enough, or had an adequate vocabulary… so I quit and let my writing voice grow silent. For thirty years.
When I picked up a notebook and pen again, necessity drove me. While on that silent road to nowhere, the absence of writing had begun to wear on my psyche. I knew that, despite a profitable business, something was missing in my life, something was missing in me.
I began to write creatively again, not all at once and not without fear, but gradually. Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing practice helped. The butterflies came and went, but I pressed on, largely because it felt a little like dying not to.
Several years of writing practice gave me the confidence to attempt a full-length novel. That delirious, first burst of creativity slowed to a crawl, but then I ran across another break-through writing book, Rosanne’s Around the Writer’s Block. What an epiphany! Writing needn’t be a life-or-death proposition. It could be fun, and fun in manageable chunks of 5, 10, or 15 minutes a day.
Play time? Yes, I can do that. Rewards? Great. I’ll go gangbusters for those little gold stars, chocolates and coins. Rewarding myself just for showing up and maybe getting a little work done sounded much more enticing than, “Your relevance is on the line!” which was what Monkey Mind whispered in my ear.
Every so often, and despite the encouragement of supportive peers and mentors, I still get hammered by self-doubt. A challenging scene can send me skidding into a fishtail around roadblocks that make the writing seem more an obstacle course than an occupation.
After an agonizing dry spell, I finished a scene in my nascent novel last week that had taxed my imagination and my fortitude for months. I wrote and rewrote, and every word felt wrong, out of sync, mediocre. Monkey Mind climbed back on my back and stayed there so long, I got saddle sores. What felt like a century went by and still, no pay dirt. I teetered on the edge of quitting, but instead, I pressed on. I practiced. I slogged, sometimes for hours, each day. I did this, with no apparent progress, for ten months. Ten! Nothing I set down looked like a keeper. Not. One. Word.
Desperate and despite lack of conviction that outlining might help — I’d outlined the entire novel and yet no magic had occurred — I drilled down further and outlined the scene that had stumped me, beat by excruciating beat. I showed up at the page and I tried to have a little faith in myself, even while that internal saboteur made fun of my misery. Practice, outlining and more practice, every damn day.
Finally, the barricades and orange barrels disappeared. All the pieces of writing I’d found wanting began to coalesce. There were some keepers in that pile of steaming story after all. The fog cleared, the road beckoned, and I could practically hear that chirpy song from The Wizard of Oz movie, “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night…”
Looking back, I realize it would have taken a lot less time to reach this breakthrough had I not fought so hard to avoid outlining. Now I know better. Trust the process. Let the words fall where they may and, sooner or later, even if much later, they will learn to fly in formation. I now have a finished scene and, indeed, a whole new chapter, to prove it.
When all else fails, when the Muse takes off for the Florida Keys and stays there on an extended vaycay, when your protagonist says, “Bite me,” and sulks in a corner, even if your antagonist gets in a snit and leaves to pursue a career makeover, the tools of writing practice, outlining, and a large pile of chocolate-covered peanuts will get you across the finish line.
Sammi Soutar is writing a humorous fantasy about a fairy godmother. Although she has never met her own fairy godmother, nor a common garden gnome for that matter, she says that once, while weeding in her garden, she fought a dragon who was impersonating a wild raspberry bush.