“We’re told that sitting is the new smoking. Well, I’m currently in the middle of a new book so I’m burning my way through several packs a day, Hemmingway style. When my writing is going well or perhaps especially when it isn’t, I sit tucked tightly at my desk for hours on end, not daring to move in case I lose the flow or miss that spark of inspiration that might just light my way out of the hole I’ve dug myself into. But then I come to my senses and realize that what I need to move forward is to, well, move.
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“I wouldn’t be the first writer to recommend this, I’m sure, but when I am stuck, I step away from my computer and pick up a pen. I like a pen that’s fluid but not fancy (a uni-ball Vision Elite works well), something less temperamental than a ballpoint; I leave my desk and choose another spot in the house—or outside of it, like a café patio—and print a set of pages (they don’t necessarily have to be the ones I’m working on) to revise. This tripartite shift—of place, so I don’t feel like I’m physically stuck; of utensil; and of surface—almost always does the trick.
“Whenever my writing snarls itself into a tangle, I always take the same approach—I carry that horrible knot to bed and quench the lamp. Then, I wait. In the dark, my drowsy mind probes that tangle, whirling under it and around it, nudging and poking, tugging at any slack. The threads seldom loosen before I lose consciousness. Instead, I’m yanked awake at 3:00 or 4:00 AM, to fumble for my phone and tap urgent clues to my waking self. I have learned to trust in the ordinary darkness of a bedroom, because I trust in the illumination I’ve felt there.
“Do you have a written work you return to over and over, knowing as you reread it, you’ll return to it again? Is there a poem or essay, an article or story that, for you, is like a psalm? For me, it’s ‘Towards the Splendid City,’ Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Lecture from 1971. It begins with a long introduction about a trip to the remotest parts of Chile that the poet took when he was younger. Neruda lets this opening passage take its time unfolding.
“When stuck, I pull out a big plastic bin full of paper I have collected, my brain’s own cabinet of curiosities. Every time I read the newspaper or find something of interest on the web, I cut or print it out. I screenshot or text myself things that catch my attention, print these out, and put them in the bin. Some things might be hand-copied on a small index card or postcard. The important thing is that the items be print, analog, not a digital file. I need to hear the rustle of them. I need them to be weirdly formatted, randomly juxtaposed. I have to shuffle through them with my hands.
“When my writing stalls, it usually means that there is something that I need to write that I’ve chosen to avoid. I’ll do all the writerly things that one does in the thick of avoidance—read widely within and beyond my topic; indulge in craft books and actually do the exercises; go for walks with Audible on; listen to MasterClass lectures that are tangential to my topic; collage; phone a friend; search for unaffordable, beachfront real estate; have solo dance parties with my disco ball; practice piano; prune my petunias; clean out the vegetable bin; and there you have it.
“When I was writing my first novel, Things We Lost to the Water, I was a graduate student in Lake Charles, Louisiana. If a writing session wasn’t going the way I wanted, I went somewhere else. This could have easily been a drive with the windows down, the hot Louisiana air breezing by. But driving took too much concentration along with the fact that the activity always made me anxious. I opted to take walks instead. I lived a mile away from the city’s namesake lake and walked there when I felt like I couldn’t write anymore.
“My mother recently gave me two plants (Shel and Roald) as a gift. I didn’t particularly want them, as I don’t like tending to things. But here we are. I find them to be at once demanding and frustratingly sensitive. To water them is to overwater them and not to water them is to involve yourself in a willful act of murder. You get all sorts of advice from people. Everyone is the constant gardener, and will inform you as to why that one leaf is bending this way and that, or why its edges are brown. It can all be somewhat overwhelming, so I simply do my best and follow my instincts.
“I will try to get to the point because I try to be outside always for dusk and it’s time. This is definitely the right place to say this, because you’re here, though I’m not excellent enough to really get to say it, but surely some prolific or brilliant role models of ours would agree—writing and art aren’t the be-all and end-all rewards of life. They’ve got a host of inadequacies and flaws; there’s plenty of ambivalence to be had around these pastimes, daresay careers.
“When writing becomes laborious, I have three methods for trying to work through it. First, I go for a walk, usually with my husband, who is also a writer. (Any good friend will do, particularly one who can assure you that your story is indeed interesting.) We talk about the issue I’m having and re-convince myself that whatever I’m writing will be worthwhile for someone else to read. Second, I remind myself to just write the juicy bits and forego all the boring parts. What stories do I want to tell? What can be cut? What’s most exciting? Just write those.