Getting around the writer's block

During school visits, I’m often asked about “writer’s block” and how I overcome it. I generally talk about how I take a break, read something else, or just push through. And that’s true, for the most part. When I was as young as these kids, I imagined writer’s block to involve anguished moments of staring at a blank page. I’d be unable to pull words out of my brain, frozen like a stubborn hourglass on my outdated laptop. But now that I write for a living, I realize that’s not quite how writer’s block manifests in me.

There are many times where I’m unmotivated or uninspired to work as I stare at my computer screen. And then my fingers sneak away from the keyboard to the mouse, where I click on social media, shopping sites or my inbox. Sometimes, like I tell the kids, I do manage to push through, telling myself to put something on the page that I can edit later. On rare occasions I have a burst of creative energy and the words flow out easily. I recognize those moments because I am literally pounding on the keyboard and the sound distracts me enough to pause and be pleased with my progress. And then somehow I end up back on Facebook before my inner voice scolds me to return to what I was doing. Yes, I inevitably end up wasting a lot of time when I’m “writing.” But that isn’t actual writer’s block. It’s just the way I work.

For me, writer’s block is self-doubt—those moments of despair where I question what I’m doing altogether and am “literally” paralyzed. This can strike at any moment, although there are of course the obvious triggers: rejection letters, the black hole of non-response from agents or editors, and at times, even other writers’ new books and the ugly, envious feeling of “why not me?” The hardest moments are when I read what I’m working on with a self-hating lens. Suddenly, the exciting project I’ve been devoted to for days or months seems futile. “This is horrible!” my inner voice moans. “Will anyone want to read this? Will anyone publish it? Am I just wasting my time?”

So what do I do in these instances? I wish I was the kind of person who could read an inspirational quote or do yoga to get out of my funk. But more often than not (okay, pretty much always) I owe it entirely to someone else. A friend who reminds me how lucky I am to do what I love. My critique partner, who commiserates and shares a personal low moment. Or a stranger who reaches out to tell me she loved my books for no reason other than kindness.

I recently received one such beautiful note from an educator in Iowa named Jane. At the time I was deep into a full-blown pity party that might have included the phrase “this is pointless.” It shamed me and thrilled me at once to read her letter, including how much she appreciated Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, how she shared it with others, and how she was even thinking of framing pages from it for her home. And she closed with an encouraging, “please continue to write more books!”

Jane’s message served as the giant reboot I needed. It snapped me out of my ungrateful mood and reminded me that there is an audience out there welcoming and appreciating what I am doing. I turned back to my screen reenergized and recommitted to my writing, and hopeful for more people out there like her. Because even though this industry can be filled with rejection, and at times lonely, confusing and bleak, you all make it completely worth it. Thanks for being the remedy I need.



Writing your cake and eating it too

My birthday book cake, at the Night of the Moon launch party in 2008It’s always inspiring to hear accomplished writers speak about their experiences. This past Sunday I listened to Candace Fleming, while accepting a nonfiction award from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC, share charming anecdotes and tips about her writing. One thing she said especially stood out to me, as someone who derives much satisfaction from baking and having other people enjoy the things I make. Candace described a time when a student at a workshop told her that she preferred to write non-fiction over fiction because non-fiction was “easier.” Disagreeing with the student’s assessment, she likened the process of writing to baking a delicious cake. 

Fiction, she said involved making this cake using whatever ingredients your heart desires, based on a recipe you choose: chocolate chips, coconut, nuts, and so on. On the other hand, she said non-fiction writing was sending someone else to the store, who returns with an assortment of odd ingredients: liver, boiled peanuts, and cabbage, and then trying to make a cake that anyone wants to eat out of them.

I’ve watched countless episodes of Chopped, the Food Network show where aspiring chefs open baskets of mystery ingredients to dramatic music. They inevitably concoct desserts that look pretty palatable out of unusual ingredients like garam masala, cucumbers and basil. But they also get to add whatever they draw from the pantry to mask, dilute or intensify the flavors. As much as I enjoy the show, I’ve always considered the judging of it to be unfairly arbitrary—some chefs get chopped for not using enough of one ingredient, others for too much, some are told they don’t reinvent them, others lost standing because they aren’t true to form. There is no one formula or path to success.

It seems to be the same with writing. All writers, whether they are working with the ingredients they selected or have been given, use the pantries of their imaginations to transform, enhance and elevate their stories. Their struggle, much like the chefs on Chopped, is to create something they find delicious versus guessing what the judges out there want to taste. As I continue to send stories to the chopping blocks of the literary world, I’m hoping to get the balance right. My goal is to write something so irresistible you can’t put it down until it’s done. Anyone out there have the secret ingredient?