When Words Fail You: Help for Writers Experiencing a Lull

Some call it “writer’s block.” (Others call that an excuse) I call it a bad day. You know those moments when your intent is there, but the words fail you. You want to write, maybe you even have some ideas in mind. You have the time set aside to tackle the keyboard or burn up the page. You probably even have a lidded cup of cold brew or a special herbal cup of tea nearby. All systems related to a decent writing session are essentially go

Except, they are not. Because, for whatever reason, the meager words you are managing to get out on the page or the screen are uninteresting, painfully scarce, and not quite up to par with what you had been striving for when you first sat down to write. 

You are experiencing the dreaded writer’s lull.

It seems those moments when the words won’t come happen to all of us at one point or another, causing frustration and doubt. What to do? 

Consider these five tips:

1. Don’t panic. 

Stay calm. Trust that the quality creative ideas and words you are yearning for are floating somewhere in the recesses of your psyche and will eventually appear. Perhaps they have yet to be fully formulated? Maybe you are over thinking? Maybe you are over tired? Maybe you have too many other things on your mind?

If you are nodding your head in agreement to any one of these questions know that your lifestyle may be impacting your writing practice. It is hard to remain calm about an unsuccessful writing session when you are especially tired or overwhelmed. Everyone defines overworking differently and everyone defines getting adequate sleep differently too. Let your gauge be whether or not your writing is up to your expectations. If the words won’t come, you might need to make some lifestyle adjustments. Vow to get more sleep. Jot down lists to help organize any additional tasks or responsibilities that are weighing on your mind. Say “no” to taking on new responsibilities.

The next best thing you can do is to step away from anything writing-related for a brief spell. Tend to something different. Take a walk. Do the dishes. Prep for dinner. Take the dog for another walk. Hang out with the cat. Read. But whatever you do, do not, and I repeat, do not go down the path of incorrectly insisting to yourself that you cannot write or that you never could write or that you never will write again.

Do not panic. Save the dramatic for someone who yearns to be on the stage. You have writing to do. And, do it you will. Just not at this particular moment.

Getting yourself emotionally worked up into some negative stance will do you more harm than good. The last thing any writer needs is self-induced criticism. So, take a deep breath instead. In fact, take several. Then, after a bit, get back to work.

2. Write what you can

Most masterpiece’s are not created in one writing session. Sure, we’ve all been at the reading where someone gets up to announce that what they are about to read was just written that morning, and sometimes those pieces are surprisingly good. But most times, they are not yet close to what they could be in a more finished form. For most of us, good writing usually takes time. One of my favorite novels is Donna Tartt’s, “The Goldfinch.” From what I have read, that book took Tartt numerous drafts and ten years to write. Ten years. I have never met Donna Tartt, but I imagine that she had some writing days that were more of a struggle than others. Clearly, she kept on going. And, aside from her obvious talents and skills as a storyteller, she was consistent. She kept at it. And that, my dear writer friends, is what you need to do too.

Write what you can with the understanding that some days what you write will be utterly disappointing. It is essential to your writing practice that you continue on anyway.

Maybe, on this day, you can’t produce the pages of coherent quality writing that you need, but you can jot down bullet lists of ideas for future pieces. Maybe the best you can do, (and this would be pretty awesome even on a good writing day), is to create a series of writing exercises for yourself. These exercises might include writing a page of dialogue between a character who insists that he or she can not write and one who has no understanding of what that means.

You might try writing a dozen or more lines of random iambic pentameter. Or, why not try listing all of the word associations you can make with a color (yellow?) or a random word?.

The point is, when you are having an off writing day, you need to write what you can. You also need to keep on writing. Don’t let one or even a series of unproductive writing sessions sabotage your entire writing practice.

Every writer has days when writing is a struggle. I believe that sometimes all you can do to get through a lull is to keep writing whatever pops into your mind, be it words, phrasings, anything to keep a flow going. Go with it. Write what comes up, even if the thoughts are un-linear and nonsensical. Eventually, your words and ideas will come around into some semblance of order.

I have learned that on some days, the best I can do is write the words, “I have nothing to write.” over several times like some sad writer’s mantra. Every time, and I mean every time I do this, the words and ideas I was hoping for eventually start flowing and I am on my way to another draft, be it a poem or part of a chapter.

Writing what you can is always better than writing nothing at all.

3. Get Out of Your Own Way

Truly. Get out of your own way. If ever you shut down your inner critical editor voice, now, when the words won’t come, is the time to do it. The last thing you need during a writing lull is to have your inner critic stomping around in your head, ensuring that any creative ideas or words are not good enough. This ensures your ideas and your words are both dead upon arrival before they even stood a chance. Shut down all inner criticism and make the effort to switch any negative self-talk into language that is positive and supportive. You, and your writing, deserve that.

4. Show Up 

If you are serious about maintaining a writing practice, all you can really do is show up on a regular, consistent basis and attempt to write. The words will come. They might not be what you initially hoped for or, they may exceed your wildest expectations. Such are the ups and downs of any writer’s practice.

Stick with an ongoing writing schedule. Commit to writing something. If your own words won’t come, then why not (credit) and copy down a few stanzas from an admired poet’s poem or a paragraph from a favorite author into your writing notebook? Over the years I developed the practice of jotting down lines from from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, “The Namesake” as a kick start exercise simply because I so love the cadences in her writing and use of language. (I still keep a copy of her book close by in my office.) Remember, do not get discouraged. The more you write, the more the words will be percolating within you and it will take less and less coaxing to get them to appear on the page or on the screen.

5. Practice Self-Care

Make yourself a priority. Your creative imagination will suffer if you are walking around exhausted, undernourished, and feeling out of shape. Get a decent amount of sleep. Make the effort to eat healthfully. And, if going to a gym is not your thing, then for goodness sake, get outside once in a while and go for a decent walk or simply stretch. These simple suggestions will contribute to your underlying well being so even on days when the words don’t come easily, you’ll at least have better than a fighting chance to work with them when they do appear.

Be strong and resolute in your writing practice. And remember that all writers are connected not only by the joys of writing, but also by the efforts made in working through those writing lulls that happen to all of us from time to time.

May the Muses be with you!

~Judith Lagana



On Locating Those “Entry Point” Moments in Your Writing


Are you identifying the moments in your writing which call for a deeper delve into the details? Do you catch those phrasings, which provide a near perfect set-up for the insertion of new metaphor, imagery, or backstory? I call these moments entry points. Are you utilizing them?

If you’re not, you need to reconsider your writing strategy. Developing a better sense of recognizing the entry points within your writing will improve your writing.

Seeking Potential


The addition of one word, new stanza or reorganized phrasing within a point of entry can make a world of difference in the progression of your work. These points of entry exist throughout your writing. If you don’t recognize them, you are missing valuable opportunities.

”Read that line again…” are requests that Robbin Farr and I frequently make during our AWA workshop feedback sessions. As the writer re-reads their line, we listen carefully before following up with some variation of, “Yes, right there. The point of entry is in that line.” And with that, we offer insight into the place within the writing that appears full of potential for further development.

Recognizing the Entry Points

Locating entry points requires critical listening, reading, and consideration. You’ll need to question yourself and the writing. Where might one detail be developed to offer a hint more backstory? Where might a line be fleshed out to further create a more striking image? Where might you expand upon an already interesting moment in the writing?

Reading through a rough draft with the intent of identifying entry points is an important strategy for any writer. Recognizing those points takes skill and practice. The effort is worth it. The resulting refinements, at minimum, will be more impactful lines.

Expanding Upon the Possibilities

So why is it that writers often miss these points? I believe it’s because we don’t think enough of our first drafts. We don’t consider that our early drafts offer more than surface potential.

True, some drafts are richer than others. But first drafts are frequently under-valued and underutilized. They can and should be mined for additional moments of potential richness. I encourage returning, and new writers especially, to look for those easy to miss entry points within their own drafts.

The key is to read and critically reread, while watching for moments that strike you as being prime for further exploration. These are the moments with potential, your entry points.

You’ll want to expand upon the possibilities of all that is hinted at in the first draft. Note and work areas where already established images, characters, and themes may be further expanded. If you feel you usually miss these opportunities in your own writing, a writing workshop or coaching session with a more experienced writer may help.


Work Those Drafts

Any first draft is an awesome thing. Early drafts are stocked with such potential. In my mind, it is as if someone was extending an offer for you to journey through unexplored territory with a guarantee that the results, on some level, will be fruitful.

Sure, some drafts may not amount to much, yet, others turn into prized pieces. Either way, a writer develops experience through the process or working those entry points to fruition. So go ahead, work your drafts to their fullest extent. Seek out the entry points within them. And don’t be surprised to when your writing improves.

May the Muses be with you!

~Judith Lagana

 
 
 
 
 
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Judith Lagana is the founder and co-editor of River Heron Review. Visit her on Instagram. Twitter, and her web site.

 

On Writing Process: The Essential Nine Phases (Part 2)

Part 2 of 3

When we last left off, we were considering how the key stages of observing, reading, and mulling (over) figured into the “Essential Nine Phase of the Writing Process.” Again, this multi-phased process acknowledges the key phases that writers pass through during the entirety of their writing process. The next three stages, drafting, revising, and rereading, are also key to the overall process.

Let’s take a look:

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“…the phases of drafting, revising, and rereading form the heart of the writing process.”

4.  Drafting

In the beginning, there is the first draft. Few things are as pure.

This initial piece of writing is raw in the sense of being new and authentic. Ideally during this stage, the writer gets caught up in the writing itself. No overthinking. No doubting or judging. Just pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Pure unadulterated writing. The drafting phase is the free fall, the jump off. It is here that a writer lets loose and allows that blend of whatever imagination, memory, and intent are at work within their psyche.

Included in this mix is the reach towards genre, and whatever figures into the genre of your choosing. Maybe research, maybe form. So many famous writers have offered their take on the writing of the first draft. I adhere to the words of John Steinbeck, who recommended that writers simply, “write fast.” My take on this is to write as quickly as possible, without overthinking, so that the ideas flow before they fade and risk being lost. This doesn’t work for everyone. So, it is important that you experiment and pay attention to what works best for you in terms of getting down that initial flow of images, details, and insights.


5. Revising

Revising is akin to revisiting your first draft. Depending on your take on things, this phase can be one of the more enjoyable phases in your writing process. This is where you return, skim through, and work through your first draft forms.. You make revisions, add a line here or there, delete or develop a detail or image. It is during the revision phase when you’ll look for those openings within your writing that offer the chance to further delve in and explore, expand. It is here where the opportunity to develop an image, a character, a description makes itself available if, you are paying attention. Revision is a necessary and vital phase, so give yourself permission to dwell here in a mindful manner. As you revise you’ll revisit the original piece, your either add to what’s already there, or cut, cross out and delete for the purpose of developing a stronger working draft. It is here where you decide whether or not to commit to taking a draft further.

6.  Rereading

Rereading is the careful and mindful reading aloud of the original, slightly revised piece. This may take place in the form of a quick, subdued read, or a more energized reading. It may be something you do aloud in the company of only yourself or it may be an opportunity you share with a trusted writer friend or family member. However it plays out, the goal is to read the piece aloud for the purpose of listening to cadences and flow.

Where and how does your writing move? Does it stumble or falter? If so, you’ll recognize those areas as needing more work. Does it glide or roll? You’ll celebrate those areas and use their energy as you further revise other segments of the piece. Your editor’s eye and ear should be actively at work here. The rereading phase allows the writer to really listen to the cadence of things and whether or not the writing is as clear as is intended.

A common mistake many writers make is not recognizing that their intended idea may not be transferring as clearly as was intended, onto the page. This reading and rereading phase helps bring the writer's intention in line with the manner in which the words come across to a reader. Numerous, mindful readings and re-readings help with clarity and intent, no doubt.

To any writer, the phases of drafting, revisiting, rereading, form the heart of the writing process. It is here where the writer charts a beginning, a benchmark from which to start and a place from which to move forward. Hopefully as you move through your own writing process you will honor and allot ample time to thee essential phases of drafting, revisiting, and rereading. Your writing will only benefit from your commitment.


~Judith Lagana

Next: Refining, Finalizing, Sharing, Phases 7, 8, & 9 (Part 3 of 3)

 
 
 
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Judith Lagana is the founder and co-editor of River Heron Review.
Visit her on
Instagram. Twitter, and her web site.

Reassessing Your Writing Practice

October is finally “in season.” Here on the East Coast the temperatures have finally dipped, and over the past several days, the top edges of the trees are beginning to show lowlights of reds, oranges, and browns. These seasonal shifts offer the opportunity to reflect on our current writing practices and consider where we might need to implement change for the sake of keeping our writing practice vital. With that in mind, there are some questions to consider:

Are you devoting ample time to your writing practice?
You, and only you, are the best judge of this. Writing takes time. Consider how you are using yours. Paying attention to your time constraints and noting when and where you have pockets (and energy) to write can add much to your practice. So does being prepared. I carry notebooks of all sizes wherever I go and have my iPhone’s voice recorder at the ready during my a.m. commute so that I can maximize my writing time. Many writers schedule their writing sessions directly into their calendars. If you feel you don’t have any time to write, you might consider how you use your time overall. Are you flitting away hours on social media or watching mindless television when you could square away an additional 30 minutes to an hour to write during that time??  Everyone can find at least ten minutes somewhere in their day to write. If not everyday, than at minimum once a week. Establish a schedule and build from there.

Do you regularly write during the same time frame?
Consider the time of day in which you feel you write best. Recognize whether your writing is stronger in the a.m. or evening hours. Sometimes life interferes and you have to write when you can. But, if you are able to experiment with writing at different points in the day, why not do it?

I once knew a writer who would seasonally switch up the times of his daily writing sessions just to keep things interesting and, as he once put it , “...to keep the revision instincts sharp.”  During the spring and summer months this writer committed to rising early and writing for a a good block of time before the demands and responsibilities of the day emerged.  During the late fall and winter months, allowance were made for what was considered “the luxury” of sleeping in (meaning not waking up at 4:30 a.m. to write), so personal writing sessions would occur in the early or late evenings.

This seasonal shifting of work session times served to keep this writer’s practice interesting and fresh. It inspired me enough to realize that it is ok and sometimes even vital to the health of your writing practice to change things up as your life needs dictate. Other writers I know pick one time of the day to write and remain committed to that timeframe throughout the year. The trick here is to discover what works best for you.

When was the last time you experimented writing in a new genre?
Are you devoted to writing in one genre?  If so, then why not explore how working in another genre for the sake of an exercise might sharpen your use of imagery, word choice, or craft?  I encourage the writers in my weekly Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) workshops to “let the writing lead the way”. This often results in cross-genre pieces with fiction writers creating a first draft poem or memoir writers suddenly working with dialogue from an emerging character they were not exactly expecting when they started on that first draft.

Do you approach your writing with the intent that most of what you write needs to be worked into a final publishable piece?  
Not every piece of writing is meant to be reworked. Sometimes our writing offers us the chance to clear our heads and in doing so, we clear our creative psyches.  Fresh ideas, characters, and themes can emerge from this process. Learn to let go a bit. As you revisit your first drafts, you are bound to discover lines and moments that are worthy of further rewrites. But know that it is ok to sometimes just leave a piece of writing alone, to keep it as is and move on.

Are you too hard on yourself?
Do you place unreasonable expectations on your writing before you have even written one word? Or, do you kindly wait until you are midway through a piece before bombarding yourself with inner critical comments that may do more to retard your writing than to promote it?  I believe that every writer has an inner critic who needs, at times to be kept at bay, especially when a first draft is underway. Other times, that critical voice is what is needed to help us further work a piece. The key is knowing when to encourage and when to silence your inner critic.

Are you ready to make a change?
Change can either be daunting or it can be reinvigorating.  Life is full of change. That’s a fact. Yet, isn’t it easier when we are the ones instigating the change? Making changes to your writing practice is something over which you have control. We still have several weeks to go before winter officially arrives. Take advantage of this autumnal transitional phase to reevaluate your writing practice. Be like the seasons and let go of what is no longer working and retain what is.

Look at the this reevaluation period as an investment in your creativity, yourself, and your writing.  

~Judith Lagana



 
 
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Judith Lagana is the founder and co-editor of River Heron Review.
Visit her on
Instagram. Twitter, and her web site.