Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Paralyzed by Writer's Block

I have just emerged from the most terrifying three weeks of my writing career.

Writers block.

Not the regular kind where you can use tricks to jump-start a scene, but the kind that is utterly paralyzing.

With just days left to turn in my manuscript (and that’s already with an extension) – I just ground to a stop. I couldn’t move onto another part of the book that needed work either. This draft was the polished draft—the one I must turn in that has to be the best it can be. This was the draft that had to reassure my publisher I would deliver what I’d promised to deliver.

I stared at sentences and paragraphs in dismay. My mind was completely blank. The more I worried, the emptier my head became and the less sleep I got. As my mother would say, “I got myself into a bit of a fizz.”

I put it down to my grueling work schedule with my “day job situation” – namely a weekly commute from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles but I’d been managing that for months. Quite well, I thought.

It was my husband who said, “You’re exhausted. Take a weekend off.” To which I said, “Are you mad? I can’t take a weekend off.” But in the end, I did. When I wasn’t snuggled under an electric blanket, I was sitting in front of the television eating chocolate.

I watched all three seasons of the UK version of The House of Cards (Ian Richardson is amazing). I did not look at my manuscript once. My husband also talked me into taking yoga classes in the hope that I could empty my head of murder, plot lines, characters and what happens if no one likes my new series.

It’s all about finding a balance. I know that. But who has time to find one?

We writers run the risk of leading very sedentary lifestyles—especially those of us who have the nine-hour day at the office and the logjam commute as well. I recently downloaded this program called RescueTime. It was very handy in that it logged what hours I actually spent on my computer every day including each software program. Rescue Time follows up with a summary at the end of every week. My highest ever computer week clocked 64 hours working in Microsoft Word—that’s solid writing and nothing to do with my day job. It was a sobering discovery.

It’s vital that we make time for sleep and exercise. I know I’m not the first person to say that great ideas often come when we’re doing just that—ironing or being in the shower.  Even if you step away from your computer for just fifteen minutes or get outside in the fresh air, that counts for something. But when I’m caught up in a deadline, I enter a sort of “manic” phase where nothing else exists except finishing my book. Maybe that’s what has to happen? I don’t know.

Robert di Niro summed up what it meant to be a writer at this year’s Academy Awards. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

I think that says it all really.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Loved this post, Hannah. Thanks for telling us about "RescueTime". I actually took some time last weekend to read most of a book that I happened to pick up in the business management section. It was about finding balance while achieving your goals. The author -- sorry I don't have the title in front of me -- suggested setting an alarm (on watch, phone, or computer) to go off every hour so that you can check in with yourself to see what you're doing and how long you've been doing it. That might work to remind me to get up from the computer and stretch before I'm completely frozen in place.

Hannah Dennison said...

I love the idea of an hourly alarm! I am going to try it for sure. One of the things Rescue Time does is to block those websites you shouldn't really faff about on ... for me it's the awful Daily Mail online. Addictive stuff.

Aline Templeton said...

Hannah, been there, done that. And the answer was taking a break too.