Tag Archives: writer’s block

Shut Up, Voices

innercriticI’m not someone who normally struggles with writing. Making the writing good, that’s different, but producing the words on paper, nope. I was a journalist in my early career, and if there’s one thing such a program of study beats out of you, it’s the whole “tortured artist” game.

We weren’t allowed to have writers block. Words would come or you would go. Journalism is also great training for book writing because it keeps you from feeling you’re saving the world. You are producing infotainment, setting it down for people to read, and tomorrow you’ll do it again, when today’s words are carrying out the coffee grounds or scooping puppy poop. Words is words; even though they can ignite, there are a million more behind where those came from.

In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t for one minute believe you’re the reason the earth can heal, now that you’re here.

So I’ve never struggled with getting a rough draft down. Until now. For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on just setting out the basics of a story. The whole while, my inner critic has been howling like a banshee, tearing like a panther, raging like a stuck bull.

Usually I’m pretty good at turning off those voices, sotto voice just beneath the surface of creativity: “This is crap; you don’t know what you’re doing; ‘you have made the mistake of thinking everything that happens to you is interesting’ ” (a succinct and heart-sinking sentence sent to Anne Lamott in a rejection letter). As Nora Roberts said, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” I always adhered to that.

Yet it seems lately as though each finger is burdened with a ghost, clinging as I type, all muttering a non-stop cacophony through which every word can be clearly heard: “You can’t do it. You can’t write any more. This is boring. This is bad grammar. This is bad writing. You are bad.” Tiny little ghosts, grinning an evil grin, unrelenting.

Shut up, I tell them; shut up. I would like to say that, with each word that fights its way out from under the babble, their voices diminish. But they don’t.

So, if this is the new phase of writing I’m entering, the “fight for your life” phase, one might call it, so be it. Eventually the shrieking voices will have to give up out of sheer boredom, I suppose, from being ignored.

But gol-amighty, I wish I knew where they came from so I could send them back there. I’m busy, here, and they’re taking up energy.


Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing


The Write Whisperer
(guest post by workshop attendee Lizbeth Phillips)

kizbethAccording to Flannery O’Connor, an epiphany is not permanent. After spending a day with Wendy Welch at WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS, I have a new understanding of what O’Connor meant. Being an educator, I can come up with a hundred reasons a day to not make or take the time to write. For years, I have used it as an excuse to abandon essays, short stories, poems, and my first novel. No more!

Why? Because epiphanies are not permanent. Either you let them go or you do something so that whatever enlightening moment flashed before your eyes becomes intrinsically absorbed in what defines you. I am many things, especially a writer.

What did I learn at WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS? First, excellent writing has strands of universal themes so that writers can connect to readers. We have to evaluate how words appear to the reader—just in case our notions are a bit alien.

But even before that, just get it down! Write the first draft without revision. Whether we start at the beginning or the middle, we have to write to the very end before we go back and restart. A first draft is not the final draft. After writing the first draft, evaluate the work and clarify. Add details to make the narrative and dialogue credible in the eyes of the reader. In other words, ask if my imagination transfers to the page so the reader sees the same movie I saw.

Becoming aware of the narrative arc and anticipating how to string a story along so that characters grow has released me from the big writer’s pit that equipped me with excuses not to finish my novel. I can now write straight dialogue without any narrative (and visa versa) and communicate to a reader.

I used to flounder on strong narrative and ruin dialogue or write dialogue at the expense of the narrative. Until today, I am not sure I had a handle on blending the two. If I am to move my novel along and not write myself into a corner, I have to create the proper mix! Writing is unforgiving. So are readers.

I came to the table with all kinds of reasons and excuses for not committing. When I left at the end of the day, I was an empowered writer.

If inspiration gleaned from attending WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS were bit-coin currency, I would be the richest person on the planet right now. And since epiphany is not permanent, I’m going to spend my time cashing in on all that inspiration so it counts.


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Filed under bad writing, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing, YA fiction


So the blog was quiet this week because it was the Final Push. St. Martin’s Press wanted the manuscript “as close to finished as possible” by the Friday just past. My friend Cami Ostman (author of the running memoir Second Wind) comes out from Seattle every year for a writing retreat, and this visit coincided with the big editing job.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t the last time I’ll see the ms. before it’s published, just the last time any big edits can be done. From here on out, it’s tweaking, typos and punctuation debates. The galleys will arrive soon.

Knowing it was the last time to make anything creative in a big way,  Cami and I disappeared to my cabin in the woods (it’s where I lived while in graduate school, and I managed to buy it once I graduated) and wrote our little asses off, our hearts out, and our fingers to numb stumps. (Insert additional cliches here.) Cami, my friend since high school, was working on a novel, and very kindly told me, “Stop me at any point you need a reader.” I wrote two additional chapters and edited one that was a dog’s breakfast, plus read the entire work through again for flow, continuity, timeline, and–yes–the dreaded Narrative Arc.

It’s funny to read something for the last time before you can’t change it. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the editing process–well, okay, except for that horrible week with chapter five that my friends had to basically haul me out of. (Thanks, Elissa, Pamela, Nichole, Jodi, Cami, Kathy, Heather and anyone else I am momentarily forgetting.) I’m not the kind of writer who gets writer’s block so much as writer’s box.

In my attempt to explain everything clearly but in a pithy way and without pissing anyone off, I create walls of words that climb ever higher; ignoring every writer’s good advice about brevity and simplicity, I keep trundling down the canyon until I reach the death-trap end, have to admit the whole thing is a wash, and call in the ‘dozers to tear down the walls and dig me out. I wind up ripping the whole thing out. It wastes time in terms of actual production, but even those blind canyons are kind of fun–and useful–in the writing process.

If you have time.

But that’s what we no longer had, that week in the cabin. Instead, a deadline loomed. A dead line. A marker in the chronological pattern after which “this” could no longer be “that.” What was written would stay written. No more “I could just revamp Chapter 12 a little…”

And for the first time in my writing life, I panicked. After this, nothing could change! After this, it HAD to be perfect! After this, the sky would turn green and the grass would grow purple and fish would carry hand guns ….

Not. After this, life would go on as normal. I would need to do the dishes and catch up on the week of work waiting at my day job while I was on “holiday.” After this, friends would call and we would go out to eat, or keep each other company doing household chores.

Life doesn’t change that much, the day after “this” becomes “that” permanently. As Anne Lamott says (paraphrased here) whatever you’re expecting after you write what you meant to say and turn it in, don’t. Just move on.

We write what we mean to say, as well as we can, with sincerity and adjectives and perhaps a sense of humor, and then we go on living. I’ve got a bookstore to run, and a bunch of friends to hang with, and some laundry that is long overdue. My husband is still a sweetheart and our upstairs kitchen is still overrun with foster kittens waiting to be adopted. I can go back to practicing my harp, which I’ve missed.

79,116 words and two loads of towels later, life still looks sweet.


Filed under humor, Uncategorized