This afternoon, associate editor Karolina Wilk gives us a pep talk and some practical tips about dealing with writer’s block. Enjoy!
We all start off with great intentions—they pave the road to hell, some say. In any case, life can creep up on us sometimes. In such instances, I am in favor of setting the bar low. Not because you can’t do better—because, hey, you’re human, and that’s just really hard sometimes. You deserve a break, really, and your psyche will thank you.
When I was younger, I played competitive tennis. I practiced at least eight hours a week and played matches on weekends. I made varsity my freshman year of high school, but before my sophomore year, I injured my knee and had to take it easy for a while. When I started up again, it was hard to come back since I was out of practice and low on confidence.
Luckily, I had a great coach who told me only to complete half of as much as I felt I could do. At the end of our practice, I would go back and do however many more of whatever I felt up to. This took the pressure off because the expectations weren’t as high, so without even noticing, I got better and ended up doing more on my own account. This strategy of “setting the bar low” was meant to do two things: build confidence, and build habit.
Though much of my graduate work is reading and writing, due to other personal obligations, jobs, etc.—I’ve still found myself feeling like I haven’t been writing or reading enough, mainly out of my own sense of guilt, and wanting to do more, better. The stress of not meeting my own standards can make me feel pretty bad sometimes—and that’s definitely not conducive to creativity!
Talking to a few writing friends, I noticed a pattern that so many others were worried about not doing as much as they wanted or not doing as well as their peers, or feeling frustrated when life got in the way—so much so that it set up a mentality of writing-performance-anxiety. It reminded me of my tennis coach’s strategy for eliminating competition and anxiety by setting reachable goals. I think the solution for writing can work the same way. Instead of worrying about not doing better, just temporarily reset your standards and set the bar low until you’re back in the groove. The blank page can be a daunting, but no one else other than yourself has any expectation of what you will put onto it.
For me, setting the bar low means writing at least 750 words a week about something other than what I’m working on for school, whether that’s a blog post or a response (however terrible) to a prompt of some sort. After setting my new minimum, I’ve been surprising myself with new ideas and rekindling old projects. Some weeks I can do more, and some I don’t—but overall, I’m back in the swing of things. Maybe your low bar is just writing ten minutes a day, or one poem a month, or if you’re very prolific, perhaps your low bar is actually much higher and writing a novella a month is a piece of cake. Perhaps shaking up your own expectations can put you back in the writing zone as well.
If you’re feeling stuck on what to write, try to get your pen or your fingers moving with some prompts and exercises. The important thing is just to keep going and stick to your minimum, even if it’s lower than what you really want. Some of my favorites online prompt suggestions are from Poets&Writers, Writer’s Digest, and the aptly named Tumblr page “Writing Prompts that Don’t Suck.” So go ahead, I won’t tell… Set the bar low. As they say, practice makes perfect—and before you know it, you’ll be hitting aces.
We are proud to commemorate Veterans’ Day by featuring Frederick Foote, author and Warrior Poetry Project founder, whose book, Medic Against Bomb: A Doctor’s Poetry of War, is being displayed this week on the NEA’s webpage. Foote, a retired Navy captain and neurologist, has worked with the Institute for Integrative Health and other organizations to promote healing through the arts for veterans.
As he explains on the book’s webpage, ” I also have a second agenda. By putting a human face on our Wounded Warriors, I hope to stimulate my readers to engage our Veterans in arts activities. In the Warrior Poetry Project which I lead, and other programs, we’ve found that art making can have powerful healing effects, particularly in those with brain injury and PTSD.”
Listen to him read and discuss his poetry with Josephine Reed on this NEA podcast.
If you’re a local literary fan, plan on coming to MC-R for a performance by poet Michael Anthony Ingram:
I, Too Know Why
The Caged Bird Sings:
A Poetry and Spoken
Wednesday, November 19, in the Science Center 152 from 7 to 8 pm.
Dr. Ingram is the Executive Director of the DC Poetry Project, Inc. He is also internationally known as a performance poet and cultural artist.
Contact Dr. Marianne Szlyk for more information: email@example.com
Gabriel M. Antuna is one of PR’s very talented and hardworking interns this semester. As is our tradition, our interns write a blog post for us during the semester. Enjoy Gabriel’s musings below:
My literary aspirations were vast and lofty. Penning the next great franchise was my chosen torch, and I wager that I wasn’t alone in that goal; my fellow creative writing students passionately attempting to write the next Hunger Games, find a place beside names like Rothfuss and Paolini, planning not simply novels but entire series that would span years of effort.
And in the fledgling years of my writing career, I did just that. Experimenting with both the gritty principles of military science-fiction and politicized fantasy, I played with character tropes like the super-soldier and the philosopher-king. These were the realms and characters that populated my youth, surely it would have been there that my fortune resided.
But several months ago, as part of a class analyzing the myriad styles of literature, I was asked to compose a short piece using one of the aforementioned styles. Assigned flash-fiction, I wrote up a brief encounter I witnessed at a bus-stop and discovered several things, several remarkable things.
In writing that assignment, I shut everything I had ever learned as a writer, every instinct and impulse born of my personal literary tastes behind a door and sat before the keys. And as Hemingway put it, I bled. In a foreign and genuinely intimidating land, I discovered personal novelty. I discovered that I enjoyed the lean, economical sentence I previously thought was beyond me, and the next time I wrote, once again in my favored genres, I found my style had changed.
Therein was the final discovery. That in the admittedly difficult process of venturing beyond my comfort zone, I had grown as a writer, far more so than when I was writing page after page of the familiar.
A recent discussion with a professor reinforced this revelation, as she argued for this latest generation of writers to expose themselves to new and unfamiliar methods in order to promote literary growth. Romantics delving into the galactic, mystery writers indulging in the satirical, for instance.
Now, contrary to how I would have approached the concept before I actually tried it for myself, this is not to dissuade them from that which they love, but to enrich their understanding of their own style. How else can we broaden our horizons to the point where our own work reaches that lauded apex of blurred genres, archetypes and flair? How else can we differentiate ourselves from the countless others seeking to craft the next great work?
That leap of faith into virgin territory has no downside, no reason to dissuade new writers from experimenting with and entertaining the unknown. Self-imposed tradition is what keeps us stagnant, and regardless of the kinds of stories we want to tell, at the core of every writer is the ability to venture into uncharted territory with unique perspectives.
I never thought I would be writing contemporary fiction. But as I currently revise my latest piece, I revel in the turn of events that led me to this new genre, and the opportunity for personal growth it provides.
A chance encounter with a Parisian sketch-artist is a far cry from advanced civilizations and torn battlefields, but who knows? Perhaps what I eke from it will give those future settings and plots a certain piquancy.
Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not. In the olden days, when having more than one landline phone was considered the last word in information technology, and computers existed in movies but not telephones, I was pretty certain that I was the only Joanna Howard in existence. Fairly unique, I thought, and unforgettable, which would work well for me once I left the answering service and made my claim as a famous writer.
And so, years passed in which I did not become famous for writing, but was able to suspend myself in the comforting fiction that I was the only Joanna Howard who existed. Home computers changed all that. Hours spent uprooting my family tree revealed that, back in Ireland, there were several Joanna Howard’s who had lived generations before me. Okay. So I wasn’t the only Joanna Howard to have existed. At least I was the only one alive.
You know where I’m heading with this, right? Technology, which had deposited several ancestral Joanna’s in my family tree, also, by way of search engines, revealed that there were other Joanna Howard’s who were alive and well and published. Oh, well, I thought, reading another excellent poem by my doppleganger. What now? I wondered, looking at the poems I’d yet to send out. It occurred to me that sharing a name with a published writer might work in my favor. On the other hand, there were issues of copyright and good manners that suggested that perhaps I’d better pick a different name. Like “J. Howard.”
J. Howard I became, and given my Dickensonian bent, my works remained largely unpublished. So you can imagine the joy I felt when an editor emailed me, informing of her enthusiastic acceptance of a poem I’d submitted. It wasn’t just good, it was great. The images, the form, the tone–all brilliant and perfect for her publication. The only catch that I could see was that I hadn’t written the poem and had never heard of the publication or the editor (who turned out to be a nice gal with a sense of humor about things).
A few months later, I opened another email from someone in Scotland who was thrilled that my book had finally been published. We needed to get together the next time she was in London, and could we invite along a few mutual friends to help celebrate the good news? Sure, I thought, did we have any mutual friends? The people she was mentioning sounded like a fun bunch, but I’d never heard of them. Gamely, I responded by thanking her for enthusiasm for my book, suggesting that I might be the wrong Joanna H since I hadn’t written a book much less published it. However, if she ever travelled to this side of the Pond, I’d love to have lunch with her.
I haven’t heard from the other Joanna’s–or about them, at least not lately. But I would appreciate it if you, dear reader, would contact one of them and enthuse about this post. It seems only right.