Is your Writing Engine Coughing up Some Dust?

Or: how to get your brain unstuck and your wheels out of the mud

It was such a joy and privilege to attend Anne Leckie’s talk with the Saint Louis Science Fiction and Fantasy Society at Grants Branch Library (thank you for taking me with you, Amanda!). One of the things that struck me most was her warmth and her frank and straightforward personality. Here is a Hugo and Nebula winner, modest and kind, reaching out to each one of us. To hear about the painstaking journey she went through in bringing to life the world of Ancillary Justice was eye opening, especially since she had created this magnificent universe all while working a zillion jobs and parenting children. Leckie is a real railway hero, folks. She’s one of us.

After the talk Amanda and I stayed a while for book signing. I confessed to Anne Leckie how much her talk had inspired me, as a person determined to write while raising a family and working a day job. “Sometimes,” I admitted, “I hide in the bathroom to write.”

“Do little hands come under the door looking for you?”

Sure they do, like little zombie aliens. But they can be my biggest cheerleaders. The oldest one holds me accountable, asking me how many words I wrote and if I’m going to finish the book by his birthday.

You have to be careful, she told me, not to let that pressure you.

Which is something for me to be mindful of.

I am forever grateful for my demanding role as an executive – it taught me how to work hard, how to utilize time and how to plan and plot for a deadline. Those are skills that were necessary for me to employ in my writing career (I said the “bad” word! We’ll talk eventually about why I choose to use it in regards to writing). The thing is, while I am super planned when it comes to work, in the writing process itself, in the creative process, I am a gardener: I can’t plan perfectly, I don’t want to, even: it takes away my joy, my curiosity, which for me is a driving force. So how do I balance between the want of creative freedom and discovery versus the need to “get it done”? Oh, I don’t. Still looking for that golden path.

You know, I always tended to assume that when someone comes up with such a rich, multi layered universe of societies and conflict, one must be an “architect”, born organized archetype of writer (what is also called a “planer” or “plotter”) rather than a gardener (“Panster”), but lo and behold – Leckie is a panster. As such, she explained, she had walked herself into many a one way corridor and had to back track.

Her remedy to writer’s block? Scroll down the halls of your library, pick a non fiction book that speaks to you. Perhaps history or anthropology. Read it for one week. Something will come up at you.

I think it’s worth a try, friends.  I recall one time when I was running myself sick with pressure, and the novel I am currently editing, which was in its first scraggly and messy drafting process, was absolutely stuck. I found myself in my sister Yael’s home, for some art and dog therapy. And also to speak with Yael and her husband, Elad, who have years of experience in creating and fostering role playing games, characters and world. Apart from asking me wise questions, and giving me leads from his remarkable knowledge of ancient histories, Elad also suggested I look through their library for ideas. I took out a huge volume of mythology and sat down on their couch. At which point, John, their dog, came over and after tentatively sniffing me, cuddled up on my stomach. Obviously, if you have a pet, you know that if you won they trust and they sit on you, you are not allowed to move. I’ve waited years for this dog not to be scared to death of me: I wasn’t going to move. And this, my friends, is how I stayed up most of the night reading about mythology. Also, I got my story unstuck.

So let’s do this, shall we? Hop over to your local library, fish out a non-fiction book that calls out to you (it has to be a real live book, we all know what happens if we go for the screen), and just let yourself immerse in it for a while. If you have a cat or a dog that is willing to babysit you, even better. Got any interesting ideas? Got your story unstuck? Let me know. I’m curious to hear what works for you.

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