by Jeana Conder
Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled. The responses I received are now creating our series, “From the Mouth of Writers.” We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion.
This month’s question: How do you get out of a writing funk?
The only cure for it is a hot shower, maybe a long walk. Then I just have to sit right down again and stare at the glowing computer page until something occurs to me. If I step away from a project for too long, it’s hard for me to reconnect with it. I have to sit with it, persistently. It’s a very boring process to watch.
I don’t seem to have writing funks; although I sometimes go through periods of time when I don’t write much poetry, I can always write academic prose. My critical book, Dancing the Tao: Le Guin and Moral Development was published in 2012. Right now I am writing about Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor. With my poetry, I have recently turned toward modern sonnets and golden shovels for condensing my ideas. A golden shovel takes a line from another poem or essay and those words in order become the first or the last word of each line. Poet Ron Wallace has a book that uses haikus as golden shovels which recently inspired me to do this. The result is a kind of conversation with the original writer over time.
Write into it, write over it, around it, through it, just write. Get in motion, put something on the page, anything, put something else, then something else. When a writer says they can’t write, it usually means they can’t write anything that they think is “good enough.” The best advice I’ve ever heard was from William Stafford, “lower your standards.” There are, however, many different kinds of “funk” a writer can get into.
I sit down and write something.
I get out of the house.
I'm in a writing funk right now, unfortunately. I'm working on a new novel and putting words on the page, but they're terrible words and I know it, and I keep running up against dead ends. Generally, I just try to write through it. You have one bad day and the next might be better. But when it's bad upon bad for long enough, I'll take a break to work on something else. Lately, I've had edits to do on the novel that's coming out this summer, and that feels like easy work. Generating new material day after day, that's the hardest thing for me. There are no easy answers. You keep sitting down to do the work and you keep yourself from thinking that it requires magic to do it. Eventually, you'll have a good writing day—or even a good writing moment—and you'll start to come out of it.
While in graduate school, I developed the habit of writing—which, if I had any wisdom to pass on, I would advise writers in a funk to do. It can be hard, I know, but I think one of the least appealing things I can do as a writer is complain to people about why I’m not writing. So I discovered that if I only wrote two days a week, say, and both days were the bad ones where the computer screen sat empty, the notebook page blank, or, worse, every line I wrote was insipid and uninspired, I’d have less reason to try again. It’s all bad, I’d think. I’ll never be a writer. I should quit.
Instead I took a mathematical approach—probably the only time I’ve ever successfully used math. If I write five or six days a week, and three of those days are bad writing days, that’s roughly half, which is much better than one hundred percent. If one bad day is followed by a second, but I know that four more days of writing lie ahead, there’s an ease to the pain of the funk: maybe the third day won’t be so bad. Or, if it is, by sheer force of routine, I know I’ll still sit down to write on the fourth. The fifth might be good, or the sixth—and one tiny, good day is enough to make me try again the next day.
I’m also generous in what I consider a writing day: some days it is pen and paper, other times it is reading over old work. Sometimes I stare at the computer for an hour, and call it a day. Sometimes I read, and that feels worthwhile too—to remember why we do this.
Should this happen, and I suppose it has, I get the hell away from my desk and get thee outside! And, if it’s winter, which it is in these parts a great deal of the time, well, I can certainly find something to do. Writers are famous for finding ‘other’ things to do than write. Famous.
I take a walk or go for a drive.
I keep the problem in my head, mull it over and over until I have it figured out and then return to my computer.
Sit with it; embrace it; love it and eat chocolate.