Maurice Broaddus: Wrestling With Writer’s Block
Maurice Broaddus is a rare treasure — the writer who is both nice as cookies in person and who is an authorial bad-ass on the page. His newest is Buffalo Soldier, and here he pops by to talk about the dreaded hell-beast known as writer’s block.
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Like many writers, I’ve had to wrestle with the idea of writer’s block. Honestly, every time I sit down in front of a blank page, I have a flutter of anxiety, as if I may have forgotten how to string words together to form a sentence. At this point, I usually recall a comment my wife made early in my career:”we can’t pay bills with your writer’s angst.” Bills don’t wait on inspiration or the comings and goings of “my Muse.” To me, most times “writer’s block” is a romantic way to describe a story not being done yet, that the creative mind still had work to do on a project. Still, I’d say that I’ve had three occasions when I’ve experienced something close to true “writer’s block:”
1. King’s War (series wrap up). When I was set to write book three of my urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, I was stuck. I had written the first two books, leaving strands of story lines and introducing characters which had sprawled all over the place. Somehow I had to wrap everything up in a fairly tidy bow…and I had no idea how I was going to write the third book. I didn’t even know where I’d start. Six months went by, the deadline starting to creep up on me, and not a word had been written down. I was word-blocked.
What snapped me out of it was something I couldn’t have planned for: I got into a fight with a friend. A horrible, end-of-the-friendship type argument, yet three-fourths of the way through the fight I think to myself “This is it! This is the emotional place I needed to write the third book from. This is where my characters are in the story.” So now I’m half arguing while trying to take notes so that I can remember all of this (which really didn’t help the fight/friendship situation). I drew upon a painful moment in my life and wrote from that place.
This is what I meant when I said that writer’s block stemmed from the fact that the story simply wasn’t ready yet. The story was still gestating in the back of my head and wasn’t going to be rushed. But all along, my brain was still doing the work of writing, fleshing out characters and thinking through the unfolding drama. Once I found the entry point to the story, everything else fell into place.
2. Life stuff. In 2014, one of my sisters was diagnosed with cancer and was given about a year or so to live. Life happens to all of us and previously when tragic circumstances have popped up in my life, it just became grist for the mill and I worked out my feelings in my writing. Writing has always been both therapy and release for me. It allowed me to put some distance between what was going on, and what I was feeling. It helped me to examine things from a variety of perspectives. This time, however, I couldn’t and everything just stopped. I stopped writing for 6-9 months. She passed in early 2015. After a month or so, I had the epiphany that she’d kick my behind if she knew I wasn’t writing. But when I sat down to write, I was hit by this fear of “can I even string two sentences together anymore?” Because I’d been away from writing for a while and had fallen out of the habit of my daily practices which help me against writers block.
What finally pushed me out of it was that I remembered that I function best when I have a deadline looming. So I went through my inbox and accepted any invitation that came my way. I went through calls for submissions and lined up nearly a dozen projects, some pretty random and esoteric but they allowed me to mark out deadlines and started grinding. The challenge of the various projects was its own kickstart.
3. Buffalo Soldier (a fear pause). I began writing an alt-history story involving an autistic child whose guardian takes him into Native American territory. The story obviously involved writing about a culture not my own and I struggled with questions: what if I get this wrong? What about cultural misappropriation? Is this my story to tell? What about race fail? These were all valid questions (and the issues surrounding how to “write the other” deserves its own blog post), but I hadn’t written word one yet. Ultimately I realized it wasn’t my fear of getting it wrong paralyzing me (that should give me pause). It was the fear of a lot of people (read: teh interwebz) falling on my head. I wanted to tell this story, but I had all of these voices in my head shouting me down, stopping the process. It was essentially the same as fearing critics (which shouldn’t give me pause). But with all of this outside anxiety in the form of looming social media fallout, I froze.
I fell back on an old technique practiced by ancient mystics called “turn off social media.” Oddly enough, all of those voices quieted down, and I had space to remind myself that I was a writer. Writing other voices is what I (am supposed to) do. This includes getting into other people’s heads and exploring other cultures. If I trusted my instincts and did my job as a writer (avoiding stereotypes and cliches; writing well rounded characters; checking in with those whose cultures I’m writing about and listening to their critiques), I should be okay. Don’t get me wrong, we will always get something wrong when it comes to writing the other, we just need to listen to the critiques, learn from them, and fail better next time.
The threat of writers block always looms. It can take a variety of forms from not having an idea to explore, to not feeling like writing, to feeling like you have nothing worthwhile to say. Writer’s block tells us something. Maybe that the story is not ready yet or that the idea is not viable. When I come to a blank page, I spend a lot of time beforehand arming myself. I have research. I have brainstorming notes. I have snippets of dialogue, a rough outline, and description all so that I can avoid any sort of block. My actual writing routine involves preparation the night before: thinking through what I’m going to write, making a plan, mapping out the scenes or chapter. When I’m writing, I might stop mid-paragraph or mid-scene rather than write them to completion so that when I can sit down again, I can slip right back into what I was writing. I may have multiple projects going so that I can switch to another should I get stuck on one. I prepare, prepare, prepare … whatever it takes (whatever works for me) — both in rhythm and habit—to keep putting words on a page. It may not just be writerly angst, but it can be worked around. Your mileage may vary, but give yourself space and time to work your story out.
And be kind to yourself while doing it.
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