Writing styles

Here are some tips for breaking the “paralysis” of writing – Press Enterprise

Psychologists have observed that two years of the pandemic have really turned our perceptions of time upside down. As we were swept in and out of plans and routines with relentless news of death and illness, hours and days fell into a mud of disappointment, anxiety and grief. Now, 2022 begins with a still terribly elusive pandemic conclusion, and we may find it hard to get down to creative work. But consider some proven ways to break the paralysis.

Consider the immediate motivations: Are you a brand new writer, testing the imaginative waters? Are you in the middle of a project that needs fresh attention before the next step, like submitting for a conference, competition, publication, or even an agent? Are you looking for a personal revitalization, to break this feeling of coldness and regain a feeling of fluidity?

Gather the necessities. Maybe all you need is the computer or the phone. Maybe you want to compile past writings, sort through photographs, or tape printed pages from a draft along a wall. When I’m at the start of a project, before I even turn on the computer, I want lined paper and a soft lead pencil with a working eraser.

Locate the space and time “of your choice”, even if it cannot be an entire room, as Virginia Woolf recommended, and even if you cannot close the door, as Stephen King recommended. Your creative space doesn’t have to match the image of someone else’s writing space. But claim a useful refuge. Near a window? At the dining room table? In your car? In a cafe with ambient noise and socially distant company, with or without noise canceling headphones?

Banish expectations. Ignore the ghosts of judged parents or teachers, but also unleash ghost friends you may be hoping to impress. Anne Lamott suggests imagining negative influences as mice that you lower into a jar. You might imagine the fog lifting and moving away from you. Never mind how, but find a way to hit the mute button. Later you will decide when, how and with whom to share – if you share.

Conjure up your literary allies. Re-read a favorite poem or open a beloved book to skim the words of a description, a bit of dialogue, a favorite ending. Maybe read the words out loud or write a stanza by hand. Keep two or three (or more) of your scriptures nearby, in a proud pile, like friends on your team or inspiring company.

A classic, of course: breaking big projects down into achievable chunks. Under contract last year for an 80,000-word manuscript that I had already described in detail, I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day to complete a draft in three months (leaving several months after for revision before submitting). I wrote down each new count on a post-it every day. Usually I reached my goal, and some days I didn’t. But as the momentum built up, I often exceeded my goal. The ladder of sticky notes stretched across my desk even when my computer was closed, a visual reminder of progress. Staging tasks for smaller projects may seem simpler (three paragraphs, one list of images, two pages to eliminate mental static). But a concrete, daily, imperfect follow-up is the common denominator of construction.

Create a mess – on purpose. (This is different, by the way, from expecting a sincere first draft to be bad.) Identify your creative task and write to make it exquisite, intentionally awful, at least by your internalized quality standards. Use cliches. Mix up the tenses of the verbs. Hiking. Disorganize. It’s amazing how much more interesting mess can be than Insta-filtered perfection, allowing us to surprise ourselves. Almost always, a find gem gets bumped into our “worst” job, which is rarely bad as we assume anyway.

Setting a limit: This helps me the most when I’m stalled or just getting started. I set the oven or phone timer to just 15 minutes and no more than 90. The feeling of an end point creates urgency, but more than that, it sets a limit to my effort for the day. Gone are the vague ideas of working “all night” or “all morning”. When the time is up, I stop. So much the better if I still want to write. This lingering anticipation fuels the momentum for tomorrow.

Any step that works for you may stop working, so reconsider, recombine, delete, and reinvent along the way. American artist Corita Kent used a special list of rules for art classes at Immaculate Heart College. Every rule is worth considering, but my favorite is #6: “Nothing is wrong.” There is neither victory nor failure. There’s only makeup. Elsewhere, Kent wrote, “The person making things is a sign of hope.” Whatever the new year has in store for us, we can be creators. This is the hope we need.

Jo Scott-Coe is the author of two books, the most recent of which is “MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (Pelekinesis)”.