Going analog to beat writer’s block is a desperate measure, something I never thought I’d have to do. I don’t know how long I’ll be analog. It may be permanent.
“What are you saying?” You may well ask. “Didn’t you just write a cyber mystery about a woman who’s always Wired In?”
Well, yes. And it took a toll. Actually I’m not sure what took a toll exactly, all I know is that I hit a wall in November and couldn’t write any new material. It’s now February.
“Big deal,” you say. “You wrote fourteen mysteries, three romances, two memoirs and a couple of YA novels in five years. It’s okay to be a little burned-out and take a break.”
That’s what my friends told me, too. I told myself that, agreeing. But not writing isn’t “taking a break” to me. I’m happiest when I’m writing, and I couldn’t seem to. Nothing appealed, not even my romances, which are my go-to feel-good projects when I get a little stuck. Even blogging, which I normally love, felt Herculean.
Instinctively, I sought new distractions and input. I bought tons of self-help, lifestyle, writing, performance and life improvement books (along with my usual brimming TBR list of friends’ books and other fiction.) I cleaned my house personally for the first time in six months. I decided to sort my beach glass and shell collection and reorganize them. I gardened. Did a little cooking. (Not too much. I’m not THAT addled.) Called friends who hadn’t heard from me in ages to go to lunch. I also worked out and dieted, because if I’m not writing, I better be doing SOMETHING good. I’m no slacker, and this felt like slacking.
And gradually, I began to go analog. This definition from Vocabulary.com matches the way I mean the term: “Analog is the opposite of digital. Any technology, such as vinyl records or clocks with hands and faces, that doesn't break everything down into binary code to work is analog. Analog, you might say, is strictly old school.”
My version of analog meant stopping the noise and distractions in my head and life, most of them somehow digital. I stopped listening to music in the car, and let my thoughts wander instead. I stopped listening to audiobooks or calling friends on my walks with my dog in the neighborhood, now just noticing things: the cry of Francolin grouse in the overgrown, empty pineapple field, distant roosters, barking dogs, doves and chattering mynahs, the sound the wind makes in the coconut trees, the swish of my feet through grass, the feel of air on my skin.
I stopped filling my ears with noise and my eyes with electronics, staying away from my computer except for planned chunks of work using the Pomodoro method. I tried to break my phone habit, and couldn’t… but still, the tiny screen was less overwhelming sensory input than the big one. The intrusiveness of all the bits of colored data representing relationships and knowledge felt more manageable to my spongy brain on the phone.
(I wasn’t yet ready to go cold turkey from all technology. That comes in March, when I go on a two-week electricity-free yoga retreat. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
I had two books to launch in December and January. Launching a new book’s a lot of work, and makes it seem like I must be writing a lot. I wasn’t writing at all.
We had holidays. I usually write during holidays, at least in my journal. I didn’t, this time. I just tried to really be with my family, and I had a lot of intense feelings. Joy. Sadness. Excitement. Contentment. Exhaustion. Even boredom. I realized I use technology (and food) to manage my emotions. Not doing so was a real internal rollercoaster.
I did the book launches, and the two books are out, selling well, and gathering great reviews—all a writer of any stripe can hope for. These latest two are some of the best I’ve written, and with the relief of having them out there, I got a tiny insight: some of this block is performance anxiety.
I worry I won’t be able to top myself, that I’ve already done the best work I’m capable of.
Once that insight finally bubbled up through the silence I was cultivating, I could examine it. Interact with it. Test its veracity, as we do in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is my primary counseling mode. In trying to grapple with it, the tiny insight got louder, clearer and more detailed. I recognized the voice of the Inner Critic, and the razor-tipped arrow of a lie that had pierced me in the heart and frozen me in place.
“You’ve done your best work already and it’s still no great shakes—you’re nothing but a self-published mid-lister. Quit before you embarrass yourself.”
Well, damn. That’s some toxic self-talk. No wonder I stayed constantly distracted for the last five years, trying to run so fast to the page that my self-doubt couldn’t catch up to me.
The usual things I’ve done in the past to get back to writing didn’t work. My timer failed me. Pep talks with my friends didn’t work. Even Grumpy Cat flashing at me on Write or Die couldn’t get me going, nor least the pleas of my readers for the next Lei book, Bitter Feast, which usually motivates me and this time, just felt like pressure. The joy and fun of the Kindle World had morphed into the weight of other writers depending on my ongoing success. I felt crushed and smothered. Worries about money didn’t even motivate me.
I was a miner, deep in a hot dark shaft, who had reached the end of her vein of gold.
And for once, I decided to just sit there, in the dark uncomfortableness, until something happened.
That’s what “going analog” is. It’s sitting, undistracted, holding the emptiness of departed inspiration and motivation, without trying to produce anything.
Going analog is doing simple things with your hands, like sorting a lifetime of collected shells into Keep and Take Back to the Beach.
Going analog is heading to the farmer’s market and browsing the stalls, choosing three Molokai purple sweet potatoes. It’s going home and peeling one, cutting it up, cooking it, and eating it mashed with a little salt—and nothing to read or listen to during any of that.
It’s walking the beach without music, phone, or audiobook, feeling everything: wind in my face, sun on the top of my head, sand scouring my feet, ocean a beating heart next to me, people randomly occurring with dogs, and now really seeing them. Even saying hi to them.
Going analog makes me wish for a mindless job again: a place to go and punch a clock, performing whatever task that society has decided has value and will pay me for. This thing I do is amorphous, making up stories and hoping people like them. Drawing metaphoric blood and using it as ink, Hemingway called the process of writing—a dubious endeavor of questionable value, indeed, not like getting out and mowing the knee-deep grass. Now that’s a job that needs doing.
I persevered with my uncomfortable analog state, adrift in doubt and oversensitivity, miserable in my idyllic, carefully constructed writer’s life, unable to tell anyone but a few. And of those few, no one took me seriously or believed I'd stay stuck.
Being stuck felt absolute and irrefutable and forever. But I refused to anesthetize it.
One day an idea bobbed through my empty, silent head. A silly idea, for the silly novella I need to write by a deadline. A novella’s a tiny jump for a steeplechaser like me, but now, in my humbled state, even a fan fiction novella seemed impossible.
But I hadn’t had an idea at all in ages. I grabbed the string hanging from the balloon of the idea and captured it analog. Written by hand, in my journal. “A Thelma and Louise revenge caper set in the desert in Mexico,” I write. “A road trip gone badly wrong.”
This violent, intense action idea felt good, like it had the steam I needed to get me moving. Of course, I'd hoped I was going to have a Great Big Awesome Idea that would take my work to the next level, and top myself, and beat the Inner Critic once and for all. Instead, there was this idea. No great literary masterpiece. Perhaps that will never come from my pen, because I embraced my mediocrity in order to beat it.
But this road trip idea was something. It was enough. There was a sense that heads will roll.
I decided a samurai sword would be involved, and heads would, literally, roll. That made me smile, and I hadn’t smiled over an idea in a while.
I began writing, sneakily. Quietly. Not calling it writing. Not saying the drought was broken. Just jotting a few things down. And then I’m at ten thousand words, and the story had me by the throat, in the clutches of evil men, on a bad stretch of Rough Road. (Look for it in Emily Kimelman’s upcoming Sydney Rye Kindle World in March.)
Now, I don’t use my usual technology prods.
I just write, when I can, when I feel like it, without music on.
Against the black wall of the mine, directly in front of me, there’s a tiny shimmer. A new vein of gold might just be there.
Go analog to beat writer’s block. Sit in the dark uncomfortable of nothing going on in your head, no distractions or stimulation, for as long as it takes until your idea comes. Don’t reject the idea when it finally appears, because it’s not pretty, fancy, or solid enough. Grab hold of it “old school”—by the dangling string, with both hands.
Nail that idea to a piece of paper with a pen, and be grateful. You might just strike it rich with your new vein of gold. And if not, at least you’ll be writing again.
I’m sorry to hear about your struggles, Toby, yet it’s good to know that the big girls have them too. You voiced so many of my own concerns. I’ve learned stepping away from online hustle and bustle and noise is good for my creativity. Immersing myself in other people’s books, all kinds of art and music, and getting a good dose of nature and rest are also very helpful. And yes, sometimes writing by hand is the only way to getting the juices flowing.
I’m glad things are kindling for you again. Hang in there, and thank you for being so transparent. *hugs*
Thanks so much for your kind words!
*hugs* for the long block. Have been there and understand. Getting away from everything and being left with your own thoughts is a good balm. I love to hand write. I do it 3 evenings a week at work – or sometime during those 3 evenings, while I watch TV with my client in between having actual work that has to be done. Yeah, I’ll usually come home and put it on the computer, but hand writing helps me to get out ideas, plot lines that suddenly hit while I was driving, bowling, whatever, and then got stuck in my mind. I guess that’s how I grab hold 🙂 – I flesh it out in my mind as I’m driving, if I don’t have my phone playing music, running the plot line,having the dialog between characters going. I may even call my best friend and say “I have this ‘bad’ idea” then tell her what the idea is and get her opinion on it. Even if, when I write or type it out, it isn’t exactly how I’d ran it through in my mind, that germ of thought that got it going was a good kick for me.
Glad to know your working through the block. And glad that you are open about it here on your blog. *hugs* and loads of love.
Thanks so much for your kind words!
As a good friend who has seen what happens when you forget your phone, I applaud your courage, Toby! I am a true believer in the idea that writing should take as long as it takes–we need to give ourselves these resting times so that sneaky subconscious can be coaxed out of the darkest recesses of our minds to do some of our most creative work. Bravo! Can’t wait to hear more about your unplugged experiment!
I never said I gave up the phone, haha!
Sitting in silence. Sometimes so very difficult, but immeasurably awesome when you connect with your Divinity.
I’ve been struggling with my next project, too. It’s there, waiting… I started it more than a year ago and I think it’s the one I’m “meant to write in this life.” But opening those old wounds keeps me from getting back to it. I don’t want to feel that pain again. Yet, within the silence, there’s Encouragement…
Embrace the Silence. Feel YourSelf. Remember YOU.
And thanks for sharing…
Yes. Learning to tolerate, even enjoy, silence…
I’ve been doing a similar thing, going back to pen and paper, for instance, and hacking out whatever comes. Slow going but going.
Thanks for sharing! It does work…
This was so beautifully written Toby, poetic. Happy to hear you are making it through. This was coincidental, a mere 1/2 hour ago I was driving in my car, back to the office, while listening to the book, Presence. The author and narrator spoke about impostor syndrome and how it can hold us back from opportunities. It’s something I’ve long struggled with, no matter what I accomplish, I still always feel if people really knew all the things I’m not doing well, they’d see right through me and disregard anything I’ve done well. I immediately thought of you, in a good way – that you are one of the few women I know that I don’t see question your ability to do what you love to do. You are confident and happy but not boastful, totally genuine and I aspire to that (and your work ethic, I’m 100x lazier than you). And it shows, in your work and as a person. You are present.
And then, I return to my office, open an email from GoodReads alerting me to this post and drum roll…
“You’ve done your best work already and it’s still no great shakes—you’re nothing but a self-published mid-lister. Quit before you embarrass yourself.” Wow. We all know that almost everyone has those thoughts but somehow convince ourselves that those we admire, like you, somehow magically don’t.
I understand (head nodding vigorously up and down) your point on going analog. It makes us present. It’s the same with a traumatic occurrence. I can only move on once I force myself to accept the feelings, not push them away with activities, distractions of misplaced intention to suck it up (because they don’t go away, they only submerge to return later, again and again until they’re dealt with). I can see the link to other issues now as well. Procrastination, creative blocks, mindless eating. Wow.
I’m looking forward to hearing about the yoga retreat later.
I am so glad this encouraged you. Believe me it’s not comfortable to keep serving up my guts in sharing…but if it helps someone, it’s worth it. That’s honestly why I do it, no brag. 🙂