Writing Help: How to Identify and Overcome Obstacles to Your Writing
"I would love to write if I could only find the time." How many times have you heard yourself say that? For every time saving device modern technology invents for us, there are at least two new ways to waste time: reality TV, the Internet, video games. Our society is rushed, harried and running late. So how do you find the time to write?
The short answer is, you'll never find time; you'll have to make time. No matter how busy you are, though, I guarantee that there is some way to make writing a part of your life. Here are some strategies for carving a few minutes out of the busiest day.
- Get up earlier or stay up later. Easier said than done? Yes, but worth it if you can manage it. Ideally, a writer needs quiet time alone to work, so what better time than when the phone is done ringing and everyone else in the house has gone to sleep? Of the two, many people prefer staying up late to getting up early, but give early rising a try. You might find that your mind is clearer in the early morning and that problems and hassles that have accumulated during the previous busy day have faded into the background.
- Carve ten or twenty minute chunks out of your daily routine. If you can't find an hour or two to work, try claiming a couple of shorter time periods. There's no law that says you should have one writing time per day. Write for twenty minutes during your lunch hour, ten in the car just before you come home from work, and ten more just before you go to bed. That's forty minutes a day, and that's enough time for you to really accomplish something if you do it every day. The true magic of this approach, though, lies in the fact that between writing sessions your subconscious mind will continue to mull your story over while you are doing other things, and when you sit down for you next brief writing stint, you may find a new idea or plot twist that had escaped your notice before.
- Make use of chore time. Ariel Gore, author of The Mother Trip, started her writing career as a single mother. She learned to get much of her writing done while driving. She would compose sentences in her head as she drove, and jot them down during red lights. Pretty extreme? Yes, but she shows us that if you really want to write, there's always a way to find time. You don't have to have a pen in your hand to be writing. If you are waiting in line, driving, or vacuuming the floor, think about your story. What would the next scene or sentence be if you were writing right now? When you think of something, make a note or two in a notebook or dictate to a voice memo recorder. When you do have time to sit down with your pen or laptop, you can expand on the notes you've made rather than trying to remember what you thought of earlier.
- Turn off the TV. People who say they're too busy to write often watch an hour or two of TV a day, browse random Internet sites, or click every YouTube link their friends send. You can find all the time you need to write just by doing it before you turn on the TV or check your e-mail. Make these activities a reward you give yourself after you've spent some time writing. If there's a TV drama you simply can't live without, set your VCR to record it, write while it records, and watch it after you've written.
Is Time Really the Issue?
Many people who say they're too busy to write are really saying something else. They are afraid that when they finally sit down to write, they'll discover that they aren't as brilliant as they hoped they'd be; that the stories they write won't be good enough to publish, or even good enough to show a loved one. In essence, they are afraid they'll fail. It is much easier to pretend you don't have time than it is to put your ego on the line and actually get some words on paper. The simple fact, though, is that if you want to be a writer you must write. Give yourself permission to stumble at first. Tell yourself that even lousy writing is a step in the right direction. If it's bad, throw it away and start something else, or try revising it. Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten sentences dozens of times before deciding they were just right, or at least close enough that he could live with them.
You probably won't be a great writer right out of the box, and that's okay. Keep writing and you'll improve. Keep claiming you're too busy and you'll never write a thing.
Your Inner Critic
We all have one. A voice inside that tells us our work is no good causes us to doubt ourselves. You may draft a short story and realize that it hasn't come out quite as you wanted it to. "Told you it wouldn't," your inner critic says. "You're no good at this. Might as well give up. Turn the TV back on, it's safer that way."
This voice means well, believe it or not. It's the same voice that keeps us from sticking our hand on hot burners or skating on thin spring ice. It's the voice that says "Don't do that. You might get hurt." While there's no physical danger in writing or creating other forms of art, for some reason this survival instinct still kicks in. Perhaps somewhere in our hindbrain there is no distinction between real danger and emotional danger. Perhaps on some level, the letdown of a rejected story carries the same weight as the pain of a physical injury.
Whether it means well or not, the inner critic is a major impediment to creativity. If you want to learn to write stories, you have to learn to quiet down your critic. First, hit it with a little rational thinking. The fear that dire things will happen if you write a second-rate story is an irrational fear. Should you try to write something and fail, the world will keep turning and your limbs will be intact. Give yourself permission to write the worst drivel in the world, and realize that even really bad writing is a step on the road to good writing. If it's really so bad, no one but you will ever see it.
Give your mind the chance to throw out ideas, no matter how far-fetched they are. Honor your crazy ideas. They are the stuff from which creativity is made. Somebody once said "you've got to sing like you don't need the money." Write like you're the best writer on earth. Throw your self-doubt in a strongbox and lock it up for an hour a day or so, and you'll be amazed at what you can achieve. The cure for lousy writing is practice, so to paraphrase Bobby McFerrin, "Don't worry, be writing."
Another hurdle that stops would-be writers before they even start is the feeling that they don't know what to write. You might read great stories by author you admire and wonder where they could have come up with such great story ideas while you're sitting in front of a blank computer screen without the foggiest idea what to say.
The ability to generate ideas is a skill that can be learned, just like riding a bicycle or hitting a golf ball. Creative writers develop habits that help them find ideas everywhere. You can learn to do this too. Here are some strategies for turning your mind into an idea machine:
- Read, read, read. Read the kinds of stories you want to write, and any other stories you like. All great writers are avid readers. Reading great work fills your head with words, and shows you the kinds of characters and situations that make for engaging stories. Beware of judging yourself against the great work you read. Your inner critic is not welcome here. Let yourself be inspired to follow in the footsteps of writers you admire.
- Carry a notebook. Your mind is working all the time, and chances are you do get story ideas, but they come while you're daydreaming in a meeting or driving to work. "That's a good idea," you tell yourself. "I have to remember that." Only you don't remember. Carry a small notebook or folded piece of paper and a pen or pencil around with you, and jot down ideas when they happen. If you are gadget-friendly, a PDA's note pad works well also. If you work at a computer, you can have a document open in the background. Alternatively, you can carry a tape recorder or digital voice recorder, and dictate your ideas. If an idea for a plot or character or perhaps a title or line of dialog strikes you, jot it down or record it. Don't judge it at this point; you can always ignore it later. If you make this a habit, you'll find more and more ideas coming to you, so many that you won't have time to put your notebook away. Not all of these ideas will be useful, but some of them will be. By honoring each idea with a place in your notebook, you will encourage them to keep flowing.
- Develop "writer's ear." Listen to the things people say to you, and eavesdrop on conversations on the bus or by the water cooler. Talk to your co-workers and friends about their kids and the things they are going through. People love to talk about the drama in their lives. If you hear someone talking about a funny or a difficult situation, jot a note in your book. It could be the makings of a short story.
- Listen to children. If you have kids of your own, try to see the world through their eyes. What kinds of things matter to them? If you don't have kids, find ways to interact with them. You will need to know a few if you want to write effective children's stories. A few professions afford the opportunity to work with kids. Teachers, of course, and some doctors. Spend time with nieces, nephews, or grandchildren. Spend time with friends who have kids. Even listening to neighborhood kids playing outside can help you learn how they talk. Take down things they say in your notebook.
- Ask "what if." Kids do this all the time, and so do creative writers. "What if you were playing in the sandbox and a dinosaur came wandering by?" Let your mind roam free. Ask the craziest questions you can think of. Unlike many adults, kids are perfectly willing to suspend their belief when it comes to stories. Well, what would happen if there was a dinosaur by the sandbox?
Just Do It
The famous tag line, "Just do it," from the Nike shoe ads, says it all. When it comes to being a writer, there is no substitute for sitting down and writing. But you may not feel ready to craft an entire piece, even a short one like a children's story. You're not alone. Writing is like a muscle that must be exercised and toned. To start your own writer's "workout," give these exercises a try.
- Write letters. Write an e-mail or an honest-to-goodness snail mail letter to a friend you haven't seen in a while. Tell her a story about something that happened to you. Try the same thing with a child you know but don't see very often. Read these over. Do you notice a difference in your writing voice between the letter to an adult and the one to a child?
- Practice description. Describe the room you're sitting in using 200 words or less. When you're finished, try cutting it down to 100 words. What elements most define the space? Next, try distilling your description down to one or two sentences. Try the same thing with a place you remember.
- Practice description again, this time making sure to include information from all five senses. What sounds do you hear? What textures do you find in the room? Is there a smell that defines this space? Place a character in an imaginary setting and describe it through the character's physical sensations.
- Journal your own childhood. Think of an event from your own childhood that made a strong impression on you, good or bad, then write it down. Go back to that experience as fully as you can. What were you thinking? How were you feeling? Being in touch with your own childhood will help you immensely as you craft stories for today's children.
"Being a writer"
At some point you may have said to yourself, "I want to be a writer." But being a writer can be hard work, just like anything else. As with any kind of art, you have to banish your self-doubt and create something on the page where nothing existed before. Often we say, "I want to be a writer," but when the time comes to sit down and write, we often don't want to. The inner Critic speaks up and tries to talk us out of it. Often, saying "I want to be a writer" means "I want to have written something ." We wish writing would magically appear on our computer screens that we could then take credit for. But this isn't going to happen. The only way to be a writer is to write something .
Also, the phrase "I want to be a writer" also really means "I want to be a published writer." Most people, though, have to go through a period of being an unpublished writer before learning the skillsnecessary to create publishable work.
If you find yourself thinking "I want to be a writer," reword this thought. Say to yourself, "I want to write." Writing is the only way on earth to be a writer. Only by writing something can you read it over and say to yourself, "Wow, I wrote something. I'm a writer." The way to be a published writer is to write and write until your work is published. Again, one of the biggest obstacles would-be writers face is controlling their fears of failure, sitting down, and putting words on the page.
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