52 Weeks of Editing: Week 9—Six Steps to a Process for Managing Writer's Block (i.e., it was a good week)

52 Weeks of Editing: Week 9—Six Steps to a Process for Managing Writer's Block (i.e., it was a good week)
Photo by Nik / Unsplash

Oh, at last! A good week. It feels a little dangerous to say that, as if the gods will notice and dump something awful on me. But even at a time when eggs and vegetables are rarer than dodos, wearing every hoodie I own during a cold snap is more realistic than turning on the heating for a minute... being able to sit down and actually write (kind of) has been amazing.

Last week, on the Writer's Block Files

You remember how I was figuring out ways to work around the writer's block I'd discovered? I wrote a whole bit about investigating it, and the tools I was trying out to tackle it. This involved the usual selection of Self-Help in 2023 Standards: meditation, exercise, a website, and a bunch of apps.

The detail of that looks like this:

  1. A meditation that's all about procrastination;
  2. A website that allows me to visualise events in a story;
  3. An app that uses AI to organise my time;
  4. A scheduled time for doing Amnar-related work;
  5. A broad definition of what I mean by "writing".

Did you notice how I put six steps in the title? Well, there is an extra thing I haven't really mentioned up until now. It isn't specifically a writing thing, but they do relate to writing, and so I need to discuss them because they're part of the story. I'll come back to those. But first...

This Week's Episode

Let's start with Step 1, the meditation. This is a slightly esoteric thing to play with. I'll hold my hand up now and say I hate those "Have you tried meditation?" people, and I once ranted at length on Medium about them. Meditation won't solve all your problems, and it's been a relief in recent years to see more authors discussing the way it's been misused as a strategy for "productivity" in our late capitalist world.*

I have a meditation app. Actually, I've got loads of them, mostly as a way of showing people that I do try, even if it's not that helpful. This one I do like. It feels a lot less pressured than many I've used or tried in the past. I look for very specific things in meditation apps, and I'll mention this here because I prioritise working around disability and chronic illness, so it's important to know what to look for.

(Again, my opinion, findings of having a disability and a chronic illness and meditating for a whole bunch of years.)

  1. The app has to deprioritise the idea that there is a "correct" form of posture or position in which to meditate. People with chronic illnesses and disabilities often can't sit in the kind of positions that the the meditation hardballers dictate. My Buddhist therapist once remarked that if you lie down to meditate and you fall asleep then clearly you needed the sleep more than the meditation.
  2. The structure has to allow for lots of different methods, without strict adherence to a single system. So, for example, I've used apps that either talk too much through the meditation or too little (so I'm basically paying for silence). Similarly, I fundamentally don't get certain types of meditation. I can't imagine my thoughts as leaves on a stream, either. It's a Goldilocks thing.
  3. The app needs to cool it on the whole "keeping up a schedule" thing. Ironic, here I am talking about schedules, but honestly, it's unhelpful and stressful being hassled to do more meditation every day.

The app I use has a lot of different options, including being able to choose different voice-overs. I'm extremely sensitive to sound, so that very much helped. Also, a lot of the meditations are very short, so if I need to get up and jump up and down or do something else, I don't feel like I've failed in some way. The blend of approaches, including a meditation that's all about having your preferred morning beverage, is very good.

It's called Balance, and it's free for the first year (bonus), and I didn't get any money for saying nice things about it.

I followed the meditation for procrastination a few times. I tried to be gentle with myself when I found it to be overwhelming. What can I say, other than it helped?

Step 2 and Step 5 All Rolled Into One

Step 2 involved using World Anvil's Chronicles system to start putting events from the story into a complex timeline. They've recently written up a blog post on how to do this for multiple-POV novels and I very much recommend it. I've been doing this for the last few days.

This is why I've bundled Step 5 with Step 2, because this is all about being freer with your definition of what counts as writing. My main concern about the "sit down and force yourself to write" approach is that eventually you'll hate writing because it's painful. Life is already painful. Who needs more of that, especially when you're not being paid for it? My purpose throughout this is to rediscover the original joy of writing, so making myself suffer is only going to make that harder.

Planning and coming up with ideas is, I believe, how we make writing easier and less stressful. Sometimes, it can also be fun to have a fancy piece of technology to play with and spark a bit of excitement over it. Although, note that if new things like this feel brain-scramblingly overwhelming, breaking that whole learning process up into tasks can be immensely helpful.

Schedule, schedule, schedule

This is kind of sneaky. I said six steps, then I refuse to tell you what the sixth step is, and bundle two more steps together into one. I'm going to do that again with Steps 3 and 4, too. They both involve schedules and are related to each other. In a sense, they also involve steps 2 and 5 and... let's just get into it.

AI is The Thing for 2023, like it or loathe it. I've been using an app which schedules my time for me. I mentioned this last week. It's been incredibly helpful so far. I do have issues with it (the iPhone app is pretty much useless), but overall, now I've learnt to set up separate schedules for work, evening, day, weekend, and all the other bits of time I need, it's working really well for me. I have so much brain left for actually doing things! Yay!

Now we get to having a scheduled time for doing "whatever counts as writing for you"-type work. I've seen a lot about setting up a dedicated schedule in most "writing advice" books. Haven't we all? I've even answered questions on panels about the whole "get up at 5 a.m. to Do The Thing" problem. I don't recommend doing that kind of thing, but only because it's never worked for me.

I don't think copying famous writers' schedules necessarily helps. Mine is in the evening. I also have a range of different tasks to do in that time, so if one writing thing really doesn't work for me, I can do something else. If nothing works, I write morning pages or brain dump or the procrastination meditation.

The result is that all this week, I've kept up with working on Amnar every evening. This is what I've done:

  1. Learnt the first basics of map-making in Inkarnate;
  2. Learnt how to use World Anvil's Chronicles tool;
  3. Written up the first set of events and scene cards for the revised Amnar book, using the original draft as an assistant;
  4. Written this blog post;
  5. Read a great deal of background material.

The Final Step

This is actually the thing I did first, something I did months ago. I got a therapist to talk to about all the stuff around what happened to me in 2003-5 and after. I've seen so many therapists over the years, but I've always held off discussing writing and writer's block directly. I felt like it was too trivial, too selfish, too... weird a thing to bring to a (virtual) therapist's office.

I initially started therapy to help work through all the confusion, thoughts, and feelings I have about being diagnosed as autistic (about which, more next week). But within about three sessions I told the story of what happened to me between 2003 and 2005, when I wrote the first drafts of the books I'm editing now. And in that session I realised I had to be up front about the fact that this was something that caused me a huge amount of emotional turmoil and distress. I needed to confront all of that in a safe way if I ever wanted to write again.

Not everybody needs a therapist. Not everybody can afford a therapist, especially right now. For me, it was a difficult choice, but so much has happened to me recently, and I've got so much work to do to undo a lifetime of being told there was something wrong with me when actually, I was autistic all along, it felt like it was worth the investment. If you can do it and find the right person, I highly recommend it. I'll talk more about it next week, because it's the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, and it feels like I should mark it properly.

*See, for example:

David Forbes (2019) Mindfulness and Its Discontents, Fernwood Publishing

Ron Purser (2019) McMindfulness, Repeater Books.