Do you have one of those people in your life who shares way too much about their bodily functions? The family member who tells you about her horrible case of the “green poops” over dinner or friend who gives you the minute details about why she hates her “monthly visitor?”
I do. With each conversation, I learn something about her bowel movements or some other function that truthfully, I’d have been just fine living in the dark about forever. Our chats make me vow to myself never to become one of those people who tells you too much about what’s going on with her innards.
Well, I’m about to make a hypocrite of myself, because we’re embarking on a chat about constipation. The good news is, I’m not talking about the kind that requires (or doesn’t require, as the case may be) toilet paper.
I’m referring to writer’s block. And yes, I know, every writer with a blog has the obligatory “dealing with word constipation” post. It is what we write about when we don’t know what else to say. Old folks talk about the good old days and their current ailments over their coffee or prune juice. Constipated writers sign into their blogs and spout off about writer’s block. It is our universal woe, and if nothing else, it is sure to get us some sympathy from other writers.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m not currently blocked. My movements are right as rain. I don’t need sympathy or breakthrough ideas. I just wanted to share a discovery I made this fall, while finishing my first novel, in case reading this ever helps some other writer who travels the same road someday.
In mid-2011, I was hit with “The” idea for my first book. When that happens, you know it. It feels like sunshine and lollipops and rainbows and small people in funny shoes singing to you as you skip down the Yellow Brick Road in your ruby red slippers. For the next year and a half, I would work on this novel. Some months, I would write in frenzied fits and starts. Other long stretches would go by where I added a little each day with wonderful regularity. And of course, there were those rough patches where I questioned everything and just couldn’t seem to move forward.
The darkest of those days came in the fall of 2012, as I was nearing the finish line. I had not lost faith in my story. I was not questioning my characters or my plotline. I knew where I wanted things to go and how I wanted them to get there. After months and months and months of pecking away, I was in sight of the finish line.
But I could not cross it. I was as paralyzed as a deer in headlights.
I have been through bouts of writer’s block before. They ARE like constipation. You feel heavy and lethargic and eager to get out what you’ve got inside, but it just won’t come. You need a word laxative in the worst way. There are volumes of advice written on which brand is best.
This wasn’t like that. Not at all. I COULD write. During that two-month period, I could have dashed out two different short stories. I could have posted three times a day here. I could have journaled for hours, or written one of ten different essays. I had more of a case of word diahhrea than constipation. Except, of course, for when it came to my book.
When I tried to work on my book’s conclusion, I literally got a little dizzy. My mind would wander and could not be reigned in. I’d get shaky or achy, too tired to keep my eyes open or too wired to sit still. I was a straight-up loony-toon the moment I pulled up the last chapter of my book and it sat flashing on my screen.
This wasn’t the writer’s block I’d known before – the kind where I couldn’t do anything. This was something new, a kind of targeted constipation I’d never experienced.
For a while, I just lived with it and hoped it would pass. I watched football. I hung out at the pub. I blamed my job and the economy and the mindsuck of the morning news. I invented enough cursewords that if you could patent those bitches, I’d be rich.
The answer came to me at work, of all places. I had five meetings scheduled in one day. Between each meeting were half-hour or hour-long breaks. I was in the middle of the kind of urgent problem-solving project that requires several hours of uninterrupted concentration and a fresh brain. The meetings were sucking away both the hours and the brain, and I was pissed.
“I hope the book takes me away from all this,” I thought to myself.
And just like the song says … Whoop. There it is. The answer to the cause of my targeted writer’s block slapped me upside the head and said “gotcha, dumbass.”
I started writing this novel because I was obsessed with the idea. I loved that it was unique and fun. I have always loved writing, and wanted to complete a book-length work the way I imagine a sprinter would get satisfaction out of finally doing a marathon. But somewhere along the way, my motivation changed. I was still writing the book for all those reasons, but also because I was daydreaming about publishing it as a way to a better life.
I work in a good place, with even better people. It is my work itself I am not overly thrilled about. I’m fortysomething, and after more than 20 years of doing what I gotta I am ever so ready to do what I wanna. I don’t expect my writing to save me from working. But I do dream, and dream hard, about it opening up possibilities for me to re-career and do something different. I’d love to trade the stress and simultaneous brain overload and excruciating boredom of IT work (that’s how it feels for me, I know some people love it) for a job that involves helping people and making a difference. Thing is, I can’t afford the paycut.
So somewhere along the way, my labor of love became a possible escape route. For part of the writing process, that was a good thing. It revved up my motivation and kept the engines running. It kept me plugging away towards the finish line when I was tired or just more interested in going out and having fun. It was like a lighthouse beckoning to a woozy ship on a choppy sea.
But when the finish line was actually in sight, all the sudden those dreams weren’t a quaint little lighthouse anymore. They were Moby the Friggin’ Seamonster, ready to sink the damn ship.
Those dreams of my novel opening up new life possibilities had fueled my writing for a year. They made me pour my creativity and my weirdness and my heart and my soul into the novel. The light blinked, and my little ship kept sailing full speed ahead.
But finish lines are weird, like finally reaching that dock if you aren’t familiar with the port. The lighthouse promised safe harbor and happiness, and motoring towards it was a hell of a lot of fun. But what if once I got there, what was in the port was just more grunge and grime and same-old-same-old?
You see, once the novel is finished, you have to find out whether it WILL get you closer to your dreams. If it does, that’s another one of those Wizard of Oz moments. It is the one where Dorothy clicks her ruby red slippers together and wakes up in Kansas. But if it doesn’t? Well, that’s like if Dorothy had opened her eyes after she said “there’s noplace like home” and found herself splayed ass-down on the Yellow Brick road with a hangover and the Scarecrow saying “Sucker. And they said I was the one who didn’t have a brain.”
Yep. Finishing the novel meant game on. It meant I had to find out if what I had been working for would happen, or whether I’d still find myself facing another two decades of software-guru-who-would-rather-be-a-storyteller hell.
And that, my friends, scared the poop out of me. Or to stick with the original constipation metophor, I guess it scared me poopless. I have been thriving on my dreams, and I was terrified of not having them anymore.
I wish I could tell you how I got past it. I’d like to be able to tap out a formula for other writers who will face the same thing. I know they’re out there. I’ve met a few. But I can’t. I just had to let it happen.
What I do know is that part of “letting it happen” was getting back to basics. I had to do two things. One was get back to the original reason I started this book – because I love the story and the act of writing. The other was to promise myself that whatever happened after the writing, there had to be another way to get closer to my dreams, and I would find it. The second half of my worklife is NOT a sequel that will be based entirely on the outcome of this book. I will keep writing, working and exploring avenues of success no matter what. Many of them will be centered on this novel. Many, but not all.
In other words, I had to take my first novel out of the pressure cooker and put it back in the place it had always belonged – in my heart.
Because, after all, there’s noplace like home.