Why I No Longer Believe in Writer’s Block

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Until recently, I believed in the concept of writer’s block. Since I was young, I had heard people mention the artistic frustration writers get when they cannot find inspiration for their work and are subsequently unable to write. Writer’s block is represented in a scene in Big Fish where Steve Buscemi’s character, the poet Norther Winslow, works on a poem for a whole ten years as he squanders his time in the magical town of Spectre. Showing his poem to Edward Bloom, we see it in its entirety: “Grass so green / Skies so blue / Spectre is really great!” When Edward is understandably surprised by its brevity, Norther snatches his poem back, defensively replying, “This is why you should never show a work in progress.”

I used to think that I had writer’s block all the time, and much like Norther, I was defensive in my lack of progress. I would sit at my desk and try to write, but it was like my mind hit a brick wall. An uncomfortable silence filled my brain, yet I felt reassured. I simply had Writer’s Block, which meant there was nothing I could do. I was struck with an ailment that anyone who was fool enough to try to put words to paper experienced.

Over the past year as I have been submerging myself in the writing world, I have heard various writers scoff at the idea of writer’s block. Some argue that it does not exist, and that instead, it is only the situation of a writer facing an external issue which is unrelated to writing. This idea seems to go against everything that writers are known to be, or at least, how I had been conditioned to envision them. We are supposed to be distraught, frantic, constantly searching for the right story, the right word. We are supposed to stew around the house in a frenzy when we can’t find it.

However, once I began surrounding myself with actual other writers, I realized, in fact, that none of them were suffering in anguish. No, on the contrary, most writers I have met have seemed quite happy. But what explains those bouts of mindlessness, those hours of staring at a blinking cursor on the computer screen, typing nothing but a sentence or two, sentences which are invariably erased upon rereading?

I can only speak for myself, but I, too, came to believe that my writing block was fairly unrelated to my actual writing abilities. Once I began examining the inner reasons for why I struggled to get words down, I realized that I had used the concept of writer’s block as a way to shift the responsibility for carrying out the hard work of writing away from myself. If I saw myself as divinely struck by a period of writer’s block, then that gave me an easy out from completing my writing that day. It isn’t my fault I’m not writing. It’s the Universe’s fault; it isn’t giving me any inspiration.

I began to attribute what I had formerly called writer’s block to two things:

1) Lack of self-discipline. This revelation was a hard one for me to admit. I was lazy when it came to writing. Why? Because writing is hard. If I am writing non-fiction, it is tough subject matter sometimes, especially if the piece is about something deeply personal to me. Likewise, if I am writing fiction, it is difficult for me to craft dialogue the way I feel it should appear or to shape characters believably. Writing is a skill, and I hear it over and over in the writing workshops I’ve attended and writing books, articles, tips, etc. that I’ve read: you have to practice. Even when you don’t feel like it, when you’re in a bad mood, or tired after work. The worst story ever written is still better than the story that was never written.

I have made strides in improving my self-discipline, although it is always an on-going process for me. Some things that have been helpful for me are:

  • Using a planner – I have a planner that I use for planning out my personal life. I use it for reminding myself of bill due dates, shopping items, birthdays, and so on. When I also began using my planner for structuring my writing, it helped me to keep on task with my writing. For example, if I have a goal of submitting a short story for publication in the month of December, I can use my planner to break the goal into manageable pieces:

Week 1: Write the story

Week 2: Edit the story

Week 3: Research publications and submission guidelines

Week 4: Submit the story

  • Tracking my writing time – Each day, I keep track of how many minutes I spend writing, and I put the information into a bar graph. That sounds incredibly meticulous, but it only takes a few seconds to do each day. For someone like myself, seeing a visual representation of how much time I have been devoting to writing helps keep me on track. I can see which days of the week I am most prolific with writing. It also helps to keep me going; if I know that I have written five days in a row, I am more likely to keep that pattern going.

2) Anxiety. The second realization I had for why I was struggling with putting words to paper is that I was, and still am, anxious about my writing. I worry that my writing sounds terrible. I worry I won’t write enough of a certain story, or I will write too much and drag it out, or that my stories will be too boring for anyone to read. What if someone that knows me reads one of my stories and thinks, This is it? This is all she wrote? I realized that the worries plagued me when I sat there at my keyboard, and I had let them all build up inside my head so much that they formed a barrier between me and my writing.

I learned there were ways to combat this anxiety that interfered with not only my writing but other aspects of my life.

  • Meditating – Clearing my mind for a few minutes a day helps me to regain perspective.  Meditation allows me to focus on my breathing and control my stress when I have those moments of feeling inadequate as a writer.
  • Yoga – I fought trying yoga for the longest time. Friends have been recommending it to me for the past decade, and I had somewhere along the line convinced myself that it would never work for me, even though I had never actually tried it. When I moved to a small town and was looking for things to do, I reluctantly signed up for a yoga class and discovered that I am not only capable of doing it, but that I also love it. Not just for the exercise aspect but for the anxiety-reducing effects of yoga as well. Yoga focuses on breathing and relaxing. I find that my mind doesn’t race so much, and I am in a peaceful state of being that lets me approach writing without feeling built up with anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive, but spending time away from writing to do yoga has actually helped me to produce more writing.
  • Journaling – This method for overcoming writer’s block might be cheating a bit as technically, journaling is writing. But I realized that the more I journal, the less I encounter “writer’s block.” For me, journaling is a way to get words flowing even if the words aren’t part of the piece you are working on. Even if I am working on a science fiction story, if I take a break from it and turn to journaling about my day for a bit, I am comforted by the fact that no, I have not completely lost the ability to string two words together. Journaling helps keep me feeling like a writer and in the end, you never know whether some of that journaling might turn into an idea or help you work through a tricky section in your story.

Do you have more tips for overcoming writer’s block? Please leave them in the comment section.

My Experience Sending Submissions through Submittable

Since 2014, I’ve been using Submittable to help manage my writing submissions. It’s been an invaluable tool in the submission process, allowing me to easily keep track of which pieces I’ve sent, where they were sent, and whether they have been accepted or declined by a publication.

For writers, Submittable has streamlined the process of submitting to publications, which ultimately eliminates unnecessary paperwork while also offering updates on the status of your submission.

What is Submittable?

Submittable is a submissions management software, which basically means it is a way to keep your on-going list of submitted works organized. If you’re a writer who submits your work to online magazines, literary journals or contests, chances are that some of the publications you will run across require you to submit your work through the Submittable platform.

Although I’ve never branched out from submitting short nonfiction and prose, Submittable does also offer opportunities for submitting poetry, longer length nonfiction/prose, and even photography.

How Do I Use Submittable?

My experience with Submittable is solely as a contributing writer, as I’ve never used it as an editor. As a writer, I was initially required to create a simple account through the Submittable site.

Whenever I’m looking into submitting a piece of work to a certain publication, the submissions section of that publication’s site typically includes a link to their Submittable page.

Typically, submitting is a very easy process of typing in the title of your work, including a short note to the editor, and possibly writing a short author bio as well. Then you simply upload your file.

I always check the publication’s site for official submission guidelines for information regarding the preferred font size, spacing, and heading formats. Many publications charge a nominal fee (averaging around $3) to cover the cost of using Submittable.

After you submit your work, it then appears under your “Active” tab, labelled as “Received.” This status means the work was delivered successfully to the publication’s inbox.

What Happens After I Submit a Piece?

Once your work has been received, the (probably long) wait begins. Submittable offers features to track the progress of your submission. When the work has been assigned an editor, its status will change from received to “In-Progress,” which is the longest status works will typically have.

The piece is in-progress as the editors are (hopefully) reading over your work and, undoubtedly, the many, many more submissions they have been assigned. When a decision has been made on your work, its status will shift to either “Accepted” or “Declined” and will no longer appear under your “Active” tab. The piece will then move to the appropriate Accepted/Declined tab.

How Long Does It Take for a Decision to be Reached?

The length of time it takes to receive a decision update is determined by the individual publication, not Submittable. The submissions section of the publication’s website usually offers an idea of the average amount of time it takes for its editors to make a decision.

I have occasionally had pieces immediately rejected, never showing as “In-Progress.” I attribute this occurrence to the publication reaching its capped number of submissions already for that time period, or, I suppose, maybe my writing really is that bad, and the editor did not want it sitting in their inbox for even a moment longer.

The average wait time that I’ve experienced is between two and three months. The essay I had accepted by Hippocampus Magazine took four months for a decision to be made. Unfortunately, I’ve also occasionally had a few pieces inexplicably remain in the “In-Progress” status indefinitely. When this has happened, it appeared that the publication was no longer around or maybe it was an oversight on the part of a busy editor.

Are the Fees Worth It?

Writers are notorious for not having expendable cash, so it stands to reason we would be hesitant about paying any out-of-pocket expense without good reason. I consider Submittable fees to be one of those good reasons.

First, the cost is typically not more than $3, which equates to (approximately) cup of coffee. Most publications state they charge this fee simply to cover the cost of using the Submittable platform. Some publications charge more than that amount, in which case, I try to find out more information about why the publication is charging more. Sometimes it’s because it actually pay its editors or has reading fees. Contests across the board often cost more, sometimes between $15 and $20.

Pros:

  • Submittable is easy to use
  • The status updates make the submissions process seem less like I am sending out my work into a black hole, never to be heard from again
  • There is a Discover feature which allows you to find new publications in your genre with open submissions. This feature also clearly lists the submission fee, if there is one.

Cons:

  • None, except the rare, perpetual “In-progress” status occurrence

Have you used Submittable to submit your own writing? What was your experience? Do you have tips for using other submissions management software? Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section!

Living a Life of Writing

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Contrary to the popular expression, time does not fly, especially as you get older. No, time is a twenty ton freight train tearing down a set of railroad tracks at an abominable rate. This past year, I realized the uncomfortable truth — that train is never going to slow down.

Over the past twelve months, in an effort to make the most of my time, I have made an active effort to live a life of writing. Prior to that time, I journaled extensively and wrote a few incomplete short stories here and there, never really having a focus on my writing goals. In late 2017, I realized that time was slipping away from me, and I was tired of putting writing on the back burner of my life. I schedule time for work, for friends, for families, but why wasn’t I devoting that energy to writing? I finally decided to buckle down to produce not only more writing, but writing with a purpose.

What did I do differently? The most important change I made was to stop viewing writing as a solo adventure and to instead, write in the company of friends. When I stopped thinking of writing as something I did holed up in my room, writing became more of a social activity during which I actually accomplished more than if I were working alone.

Some fellow writers and I formed a writing group in Asheville and met at least once a week to write in the same shared space. We met at coffee shops and spent a few hours working on our individual works. Each of us had our own aspirations for how we wanted to improve our writing. Some members wanted to complete novels, others wanted to create a more consistent writing habit. I made a choice to focus on actually completing pieces and submitting them to online magazines and literary journals, mostly using the site Submittable.

In mid-2018, I had a small success getting a creative non-fiction essay accepted by Hippocampus Magazine and published on its site. This publication, while seemingly minor to some, was a huge moment for me because it was the first time I had been paid for my writing. As of now, a few of my short fiction stories are still in pending status with other online publications.

As it is nearing the end of the year, I am considering ways that I can continue to focus on my writing in 2019 and to become more deeply involved in the writing world. So far, I have a few things on my list:

Begin (and maintain!) a blog

Starting a blog has been on my to-do list for some time now. I plan to use this format to share my personal writing journey with you, including sharing writing strategies that have worked for me and ways that I am working to be more connected to writing.

Enroll in an editing certification course

I stumbled across the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing and am considering spending the $75 for a certificate. I am hoping a certification will help beef up my resumé and hopefully offer extra skills for, at the very least, editing my own work and possibly editing the work of others.

Devote one evening a week to writing with others

I just recently moved to a new town and looking for a local writing group, I joined a Meetup group.  Through this group I met three other writers in the area. The organizer is a writer with her own editing business and the other two members are mystery writers. We will be meeting every other week to write together and to offer feedback on one another’s work. On the weeks we won’t be meeting, I plan to drop into the Shut Up and Write meetings which are also offered through Meetup. These meetings are what they sound like: writers come together, set a timer, and basically shut up and put words to paper (or to computer screen, as the case may be).

Writing groups give me a sense of accountability that I unfortunately do not possess on my own. When I know other writers will be asking about my work each week, I am more inclined to focus. They are also great supports for bouncing off plot ideas and swapping information about writing conferences and events around your area.

Do you have any other tips for incorporating more writing into your life? Or maybe you have experienced challenges when trying to do so? Leave a comment below – I would love to hear from you!

 

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