Aaaaargh!!! Staring at a blank screen, writing something, deleting it, wondering how you ever managed to complete anything before when the drivel that is coming out of you now is so rancid, the prose so decrepid and puerile that you should be taken in front of the Judge of Writing, court martialled and then shot. You are that judge, of course. The nasty little voice saying nasty little things about what you’re getting down on paper, on screen. You are the “Creative devil” laughing at any attempts you make.
You set yourself a challenge last week to write a blog every day for the month of May. Already you have failed. This is no reason not to get back up and carry on anyway. You have learned this, over the years.
This morning you write three lines about a trip to the Rivoli Ballroom on Saturday night, decide it’s crap, look at Facebook, watch every interview of the entire cast of The Crimson Field on the BBC website and then an interview with the scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps, which leads you to procrastinate further on the BBC Writersroom blog, where you find this: Getting through Writer’s Block: Established television writers share their strategies for getting through writer’s block.
Your favourite tip from this video comes from Toby Whithouse, writer of Being Human and No Angels, who says
What you need to do is to book a room above a pub for about two months time, tell all of your friends there is going to be a reading of your script and I guarantee you, you will get that script written. Because sometimes the only way to overcome writer’s block is to literally push through it.
This tip speaks to you because you are driven by deadlines and fear. Specifically the fear of completely humiliating yourself in front of an audience. It’s the reason why writing workshops are so great – just the idea of reading your work out in front of others forces you to work harder on it, to make it less shit. More importantly, to finish what you start.
As the self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination, you can sniff out every excuse, every trick, every lie people tell themselves in order to get out of what they’re actually supposed to be doing. When you run the Queer Writers Retreat for example, the first thing you do is get the writers to hand in their mobile ‘phones. You all chat and laugh and eat during the breaks, but when they sit back down in the Writing Room, a hush descends and the gentle tapping of keyboards and scratching of pens takes over. They’ve already agreed their goals for the day, they are there for one reason only. There is no distraction, no escape. It works.
There is of course, what you like to call “Productive procrastination”. Would you get any cleaning done if you weren’t putting off doing something else? The scarier the task, the cleaner the home. In fact, most of the boring chores you do seem to be a result of putting off doing something else. Sometimes you write stuff to avoid writing the thing you feel you’re supposed to be writing. And sometimes that avoidance writing turns out to be far more satisfying. This entire blog post, for example, has been an excercise in procrastination (you were supposed to be writing about Saturday night, remember?).
Be stubborn (you were born that way, you might as well utilise it). Force yourself, allow yourself, to write any old shit. As long as you’re getting something down, it is never a waste of time. You can make it good later. Remember the maxim: Don’t get it right, get it written.
Then get it right.
1. Read. Read a lot. Read everything you can get your grubby little hands on. For years, decades.
2. Live an interesting life. Make terrible decisions. Fall in love with drunken idiots. At crossroads, take the path strewn with fallen trees, pot-holes and gnarled branches clawing at your sleeves.
2a. Alternatively, live a life so excruciatingly dull that you are forced to live in your imagination.
3. Be grateful for your fucked-up family. Emotional blackmail, Olympian feats of denial and traumatic get-togethers are literary gold! Whether you write down everything they do as a coping mechanism or merely revenge, all the raw drama of life is here. If you ever run out of material, you could do worse than telephone your relatives for a chat about what a disappointment you are.
4. Remember that the blank page is nothing to be scared of. Remind yourself of this often. Every day, in fact. One day you might even believe it.
5. Write thousands of words of pretentious bilge. Fill a forest-worth of notebooks with future embarrassment. Fail again and again. At some point, fail better.
6. Shut the door. Sit. Pick up a pen. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I received the loveliest message today:
STEPHANIE. You have unblocked or unleashed something inside me and I am all spilly over with words, like sick with them, grrroooo. I had to get up at 5.45am to write. Goddam you!
This made me so happy! It’s one of the reasons I’ve started the Queer Writers Retreat – a whole day of writing with no distraction. It trials this Saturday and I’m excited, nervous and planning what cakes to bake*. It’s the time and space to nurture your writing, because in turn the writing will nurture you.
Let us all be “spilly over with words” 🙂
*lemon polenta and coffee & ginger, since you ask
I’m sitting in my spare room, or “Writing Room” as it is sometimes known to me (depending on how active I am and how much washing is drying in here). I’m at a rosewood table and in front of me, a little to the left, is a window with a view of the City – I can see St. Paul’s, Guy’s Hospital, The Shard, The Gherkin, Canary Wharf in the distance. There are trees immediately outside, yellowing with autumn, some already undressed for winter. It is grey, misty, quiet.
You may not know it, but I have been talking to you for over an hour now. Like a lover getting ready to greet her beau, I have been practising what I am going to say over and over in my mind. While I ate breakfast, while I lay in the bath, while I dried myself off and put cream on my face, I was, in my head, already writing, composing what I was going to say to you. And like a lover, I felt that excitement in my skin as I dressed and made tea and got my laptop out and unwound the battery cable and plugged in and switched on and shut the door.
Then, the blank page.
And now here we are, you and me. You may be reading this minutes, days, weeks, years from now. You may be reading it from anywhere in the world. I don’t know you. But you know that right now at 11:49am on Wednesday 20th November 2013, I am typing this on a white laptop from my spare room at a rosewood table. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
And you know what? None of what you just read is what I wrote earlier in my head. It’s all very well thinking up ideas, but if you don’t get it out on the page, it’s just going to wither and die. That brilliant line, that awesome story, that piece of beauty sculpted from words will never see the light.
And yet. Sometimes I don’t write. I have realised it is a cruelty to myself, a punishment, of sorts. And that giving myself permission to write is a kindness. It’s always better to be kind. In no particular order, here’s just some of the reasons why I write:
- If I don’t empty these thoughts in my head onto the page I will explode and make a mess all over the ceiling
- I have to get this bile out of me because if I don’t it will eat at me like acid
- I’m so happy
- I’m desperate
- Something hilarious has just happened
- Something important just occurred to me
- I need to make sense of something
- I don’t understand
- I have to capture the beauty
- There is a picture in my head
- I want to know what happens next
- These characters are waiting for me to give them something to do
- These characters are doing something unexpected
- I have a deadline
- People are paying to hear me tell a story, so I better bloody well write it
- I want to win that competition
- I just remembered something interesting
- I feel I should
- I feel guilty
- I feel creative
- Some words just popped into my head
- I wonder what woud happen if…
- I have something to say
- This story needs to be told
- To communicate
- To help others understand
- Because I can
- To express what my characters can’t
- To express what I can’t
- I JUST HAVE TO
(Incidentally, that view of the City I mentioned? Completely obscured in fog now. The wind is up and raging outside, leaves flying quick past my window, the door banging, trees threatening to snap. I just had to tell you that. Nothing like a bit of apocalyptic weather to inspre a story…)
So. Why do you write? Come on, I want to know. And just as importantly, why don’t you? What stops you?