Clumsy, Awkward Words: How To Keep Writing When The Words Don’t Come Easily
Earlier today I was writing and, much to my dismay, the words weren’t coming easily. In fact, writing was such a slog you may have been able to convince me I’d be better off doing accounting—which I’m comically ill-suited for—instead. Or, at the very least, my life would improve if I turned my computer off and baked chocolate chip cookies.
Once I moved past my vexation about not writing with the ease I sporadically enjoy, however, I thought how necessary it is for me and others to write clumsy words, phrases, and, heaven help us, entire paragraphs. This is important partly because, whether I like it or not, I’m always starting over. In other words, I inevitably confront a blank page—or, since I generally use a computer, a blank screen—with whatever images and ideas I have floating around my mind. My mind may even contains grandiose ideas which often look pitiful once transferred to the page.
I’m reminded of going hiking for the first time in weeks or longer. The first few steps feel awkward and unnatural; by the time I’m half a mile up the trail, thankfully, it feels as if I’ve never stopped hiking. With writing, unfortunately, it isn’t always this straightforward. At the very least, the clumsy moments in writing may not vanish as quickly as my body’s muscle memory awakens once I resume hiking.
I’ve often abandoned my writing efforts when the words weren’t coming easily. It’s easy to do, and often necessary. Whether you use time away to sip a cup of tea, reread a favorite novel, or enjoy a late lunch with a close friend, taking a break from your writing may be beneficial. Julia Cameron recommends going on an “Artist Date” once a week in order to revitalize your creativity. This is an outing you do alone for at least an hour. Whether you visit a yarn shop, an airplane museum, or watch the customers at a beauty parlor is up to you. This is your chance to observe, make connections, and remember what interests you. Since writing typically comes more easily when you write about subjects of great interest, such outings are priceless. Even a quick walk around wherever I’m living or visiting—whether I stay inside or venture out—can renew my creativity. It especially helps if I ask questions about what I see; these questions may range from “Why does this black Chevy Tahoe have out-of-state plates?” to “Why does my first cousin own all of the Harry Potter novels?”
Despite the importance of spending time away from your writing, I’m also a firm believer of staying put and writing until the words come more easily. This is difficult to do; I wish I could offer a fail-proof approach. I cannot, in other words, guarantee, in two hours you will begin to write more freely and even enjoy the process. I’ve experienced—and, depending on your perspective, endured—entire days when the words don’t fit together as well as I would like (and as well as they have previously). This is part of living the writing life, and I’ve tried to accept the ups and downs of this craft with a sense of humor. I also remember that other writers are experiencing comparable struggles. It’s been reassuring to hear about famous authors—such as Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Lamott—who admit to having “clunky” and terrible first drafts.
Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, encourages writers to write no matter their mood because this is one way to safeguard against the belief you should only write when you “feel” like it. I’m inclined to agree; I’d even argue that writing may improve your mood. A few weeks ago, I was in a tizzy about an interpersonal conflict. Curiously, after I forced myself to write for several hours, my head cleared and I was more optimistic. The issue hadn’t resolved itself, yet writing reminded me of the things I am able to change and influence if I only make an effort.
Last year I read an article by Kim Addonizio called “First Thought, Worst Thought.” She writes, “Some people get stuck in early drafts and find it hard to accept that they need to do more. Fear is often a factor here. If you produce a lousy draft, you may conclude that you are a lousy writer. Not so. Dare to feel like a beginner—unsure and clumsy at first, but having a good time and doing your best to improve.” Since I have often felt like a beginner when I return to the page after much time away, I’m encouraged by her advice. Moreover, there are days when, after having written for several consecutive hours, I hit a wall and cannot produce a fluid sentence despite my best efforts. At such moments it’s easy to wonder if I’d be better offer pursuing a graduate degree or working as a nanny overseas.
How do you typically respond when the words aren't coming easily?
I’m most satisfied being a writer on those days when I’m able and willing to compose many clumsy sentences until matters improve. Even if my writing don’t improve greatly and I’m not pleased with what I’ve written, I rest assured I made the effort to continue despite considerable resistance. As I learned while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, there are days when you need to keep moving forward even if your mind, body, and spirit protest mightily. As far as I’m concerned, let them protest. Let them make as much noise and commotion as they can. I’ll be writing or having an Artist’s date or, at the very least, collecting quotes while in search of the luminous language which may inspire me to write more poetically and precisely. For better or worse, the quest to form words—however adeptly or otherwise—must continue.