WRITERS AT WORK – Obstacles to Writing (Part 4), also featuring Guest Author Amie Brockway

Greetings from WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing chat between Sandy Asher and David Harrison about the nitty-gritty of being writers. Rules are simple. We select a question that is often posed and take turns (two each) responding to it. We invite others to join in the conversation and will post longer efforts as Guest Authors on future WRITERS AT WORK slots. In addition to today’s guest, Amie Brockway, we have Kristi Holl on October 26.

October 19, 2010
Topic 2: Obstacles to Writing
Response 4: Sandy

Hey, David –

It’s nice to know I’m not alone, even though it’s the answer-all-your-emails-first club I belong to. Not only answer them, but hop to it and deliver anything anyone asks of me in those e-mails. But, like you, I get a lot done in spite of my e-mail addiction, so I guess we club members could free up at least a little of our time if we spend less of it feeling guilty!

The internal obstacle I’d like to talk about is something like a taped message that goes on in my brain during the writing of first drafts. I start out each project in a state of high optimism: “This is a fabulous idea. It’s going to be easy, too! And everyone’s going to love it.” Off I go, then, scribbling or typing away with a big smile on my face. Roughly halfway, maybe less, into the first draft, the tape begins: “This is not going to work. This is garbage. Whatever made you think you could write? This is awful. Stop! Give up! STOP!”

I don’t know where that message comes from, but I do know other writers hear their own version of it. Another club we joined unwillingly, but there we are, in it together and wrestling with another obstacle to our writing. Some writers do stop and give up. As for me, I’ve come to think of that moment when the negative message clicks on as something like the wall that marathon runners talk about. Somewhere in the race you feel as if you will drop in your tracks if you take another step. But if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, sooner or later a “second wind” will kick in and carry you to the finish line.

So I keep putting one word in front of the other, with the message repeating on a relentless loop in my head, and eventually, I get an entire draft done. That entire draft, I’ve found, is a critical milestone. It’s easy to throw away the first few paragraphs of a story or even the first couple of chapters of a book. But an entire draft? Uh-uh. I’ve lived with the characters too long. I know them, I care about them, and I’m not going to toss them in the trash without at least trying to do their story justice.

The taped message in my head hates it when I get on with the second, third, fourth, or nth draft of a piece. It slinks away. Until the next project. It’s been visiting me for decades now, with no signs of weakening — a formidable foe, but not an unstoppable one. I just write it down!

My turn to go first next time, David. I’ll be taking on “How do you deal with rejection?” And do I ever have experience in that area!

Thanks, Sandy. I’ll look forward to your opening remarks. But before we change subjects, we have two other Guest Authors on tap. Today we feature the witty remarks of Amie Brockway and next Tuesday we feature Kristi Holl. Here’s Amie.

Hi Sandy and David,

I would love to figure out how to make use of your new venture. What gets in my way?

Today, it’s 327 e-mails that have to be answered, deleted, or otherwise dealt with. I keep meaning to tell you, Sandy, that I’m reading your book about writing and rewriting. I read it while I eat–that’s multi-tasking, right? It’s a wonderful book, and I’m sure it will help me.

I’m trying to get to my two writing projects, and I thought I had pretty much the whole day today to focus on them. But, here it is 4:30, and I still have 21 unread e-mails and a whole stack of e-mails for which I have promised to try to get this or that done today.

I don’t know.

I made up a time budget, and it has 34 hours in a day. I tried multiplying that times 5 days and spreading it over 7 days, and if I remember correctly I ended up with 4 spare hours.

Guess I won’t be trying to blog anytime soon.


Amie Brockway is producing artistic director of The Open Eye Theater, Margaretville, NY. Her plays include adaptations of THE ODYSSEY and THE NIGHTINGALE (both Dramatic Publishing Company). From: Open Eye Theater. Here’s the link to Open Eye Theater: The theater’s website is www.theopeneye.org.  

WRITERS AT WORK – Obstacles to Writing (Part 3), also featuring Guest Author Veda Boyd Jones

Greetings from WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing chat between Sandy Asher and David Harrison about the nitty-gritty of being writers. Rules are simple. We select a question that is often posed and take turns (two each) responding to it. We invite others to join in the conversation and will post longer efforts as Guest Authors on future WRITERS AT WORK slots. In addition to today’s guest, Veda Boyd Jones, we already have Amie Brockway on October 19, and Kristi Holl on October 26.

October 12, 2010
Topic 2: Obstacles to Writing
Response 3: David

Hi Sandy,

Good point about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Up to a point, that is. When I’m into reading for a nonfiction book, making notes is fairly routine and allows for a certain amount of interruption to the process. But good nonfiction is far more than reporting, of course. To hold any audience’s attention for long, the writer must find ways to weave the nonfictional information into a narrative that interests the reader and keeps him or her turning pages. That’s when the story teller in me takes the lead, and that’s when the usual need for peaceful thinking time clicks in.

Okay, now for the third part of our question about obstacles to writing: internal ones. For many of us, this is the worst culprit of all. Self induced problems run the gamut and I’ll bet that everyone reading this will have his or her own list of reasons not to write. (If you have your own particular demons, let us know so we can share them.)

Here are some of mine. I need to clear my e-mail. The inbox must be empty. Ditto the sent box and the delete box. I want my time clear of such obligations before I turn to my day’s work. I also check my blog about 200 times a day to make sure I don’t owe someone a response to a comment left there. By the way, Kate Klise suffers from the same need to clear her e-mail as a requisite to writing. I drink coffee most of the morning from 6:00 on. It might surprise me to keep track of the time I burn between my computer and the kitchen, pouring or warming cups of coffee.

As the day progresses I wander the house to check on this or that. Maybe to look at the lake to see if the swan has returned. I’ll dig into a box of crackers and wonder if the salt is really all that bad for me. I suddenly remember that I owe someone a response so I stop for that. I make a list of things I need to be doing, like WRITING SOMETHING.

I check for e-mail. Maybe an editor has responded to a query or someone has invited me to speak somewhere or . . . sigh.

I get down some words. Oh yes! Wow does this feel good. Why didn’t I put off all those other things and do this first? Will I ever learn? Sometimes at this point I take my pad to some other part of the house, outside even, to get away from this computer. But you know what? As disorganized as my system appears to be (even to me!), it’s my system, and it has been working out for some time now. I’m often congratulated for being so prolific. I smile and want to tell people, “If you only knew what I have to overcome each day before I write my first word!”

Before I send this back to you, Sandy, I want to share the remarks of Guest Author Veda Boyd Jones, a prolific author and frequent speaker on the subject of writing literature for young people. Veda, the stage is yours.

Sandy and David,

Great idea to keep a running conversation going by working writers. When I first started writing, I could only write from 1:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Jim came home from work for lunch, then headed back, and I put the boys down for their naps. Anyone with kids knows you can’t think when kids are tugging on you needing this or that. I needed silence and alone time to think and write.

So, I learned early on that there’s no waiting for inspiration to write. I’d read what I’d written the day before and then I’d start from there. It’s like listening to a book on tape in the car. You pick right up where you left off. I guess you just get in the zone, focus.

I also learned quickly to take pen and paper to Little League practice. In the car I was alone, even thought chaos reigned on the baseball field.

Once all three boys were in school, I set a routine. Do the breakfast dishes, laundry in the washer, sweep the kitchen floor, plan supper, all those everyday things, then I’d be at the computer by nine. Pre-caller-ID, I’d answer the phone because it could be a family matter, but if it was a friend, I’d talk a bit, then say I had to get something finished.

I agree with David that everyone perceived that I didn’t work. (Did they think I just ordered books in the mail with my name on the cover?) Of course, I was a room mother, and I got stuck with the worst behaving kids on field trips since I was used to three boys (although such good sons they are). Still, family does come first, to a degree. There’s such a thing as overindulgence that keeps kids from becoming self-sufficient. It’s absolutely a balancing act.

You can see that I had the luxury (and fatigue) of being an at-home mom, and that let me carve writing time out of the day. When I’m asked how to become a successful writer, I usually answer, “First, marry an architect.”

Veda Boyd Jones