On backsliding and brick walls

A month ago (good Lord, a month?!), I was posting about how I was finding strategies to focus–to single-task and increase my daily word count. It was going great. I was averaging about 3,000 words a day instead of my usual thousand. I was looking forward to my writing sessions each day. My novel took on terrific momentum and almost seemed to be writing itself. Writing was fun, and I felt happy and satisfied at the end of the day.

Then, my momentum slowed down. Not to a crawl–I was still surpassing the thousand words a day that I’d always striven for in the past. But suddenly writing 1,700 or 1,800 words in a day felt like failure. That was silly, and I knew it. Still, I’d raised the bar and I was no longer clearing it. It got harder to start each day.

Sometimes, a slowdown in momentum comes from taking a wrong turn in the plot. It’s like my characters let me know that I’m trying to make them act in ways that they simply wouldn’t. When that happens, it helps to take a step back from the writing, stop orchestrating the story from above (like God or a marionettist), and get down on the ground with the characters. In other words, to forget what I want to have happen now or plan to have happen next and see the story through the eyes of those living it.

So I did that. I let go of any and all word count goals for a couple of days, let the story sit, and then reread the last several scenes, tinkering with those a bit but not making any big changes. During this time, of course, I was conscious of not getting any new writing done. And I’ll admit I let myself slide back into some bad habits, especially going online first thing in the day. But I tried to set such concerns aside for the moment. I know I focus better when I single-task, and that knowledge gives me the power to regain my concentration. Plus I have time before this manuscript is due, and I wanted to focus on the story–not on progress charts or days until deadline or any of that.

Reading over my work, everything seemed solid. I decided to try the strategy of jumping ahead to the next big scene and then going back to connect the dots later. That often works for me. And it seemed like the best way to get back to writing 3,000 words a day was to stop obsessing about how many words I was writing. To just get on with telling the story. After all, daily progress is what builds momentum.

That’s when I hit the brick wall. An acute medical problem sent my husband to the emergency room, and he was admitted to the hospital for the better part of a week. He has multiple medical issues that have gradually stolen his health, and this one has left him weak and exhausted. He’s home now, but he’s still very sick and I’ve become his caregiver. Gladly and with love. I will do whatever I can to take care of him, make him comfortable, and help him recover. And I’m grateful to be able to do that at home, sparing him an extended hospital stay.

I haven’t written in two weeks, since the health crisis started. I took my laptop to the hospital so I could write as he rested, but a combination of worry and the unfamiliar setting kept me from getting much done. Since he’s been home, I’ve spent hours on the Internet looking up his symptoms so I can have an informed conversation with this doctor. And I’m on call 24 hours a day when he needs help.

That’s as it should be right now. It’s important that I understand what’s going on with his health, and it’s important that I take care of him. And to be honest, I’d give up writing entirely if doing so would restore his health to 100%. But the gods aren’t offering me that bargain.

So I need to figure out how to start writing again. I suspect the answer is, “Just do it.” I’m working on the how. I never thought of myself as a creature of routine until my routine was interrupted and my days exploded into a thousand tiny fragments. I used to get up first and have about two hours of writing time in the morning. I can’t count on that now. But two hours–or an hour at the very least–always seemed like how much time I needed to write. I don’t have that luxury right now. I don’t know when I can sit down to write or how much time I’ll have to do it. So I have to learn how to make progress when all have have is 10 or 15 minutes. I have to turn on my laptop at the start of the day and pick it up when I can. I have to be able to jump into a scene without a lot of warm-up.

It seems to me I have two kinds of fear to get past: fear for my husband’s health and fear of losing my writing. The only way to get past these fears is to face them, moment by moment and day by day. To stop worrying about the future, about what might happen, and to do what I can right now, in this moment. I’ll let you know how I do.


About nancyholzner

8 responses to “On backsliding and brick walls

  • MelanieL

    I love reading your posts. Thank you for sharing with us.

    It’s a long, boring tale, but to put it short I had parents that didn’t care, were emotionally challenged and kept me out of school so that I missed more days than I was present. Yet, somehow, I managed to test at a college level in reading when I was 12 years old.

    However, I failed to learn most of the essential writing skills that the average child learns. As a teen this didn’t bother me. I loved to create my stories and it didn’t matter if my punctuation or grammar was horrific. Then I became an adult and a mother and it mattered perhaps too much.

    I spent most of my 20s and now my 30s trying to teach myself. I try to write and I fall in love with my stories until around chapter three, then I convince myself I have neither the talent, skill nor education. It’s a vicious cycle. I trash whatever story and decide I’m foolish and forget it. Characters start pounding on my imaginations door though and only can be ignored long enough before the hammering is so loud it drowns out every thing else.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get a completed story but getting to read challenges that successful writers face does offer me a sense of comfort.

    (Also, I’m a goldfish. I’ve probably mentioned something like this before and if I have, forgive the repeat! I want you to know, however, that you’re appreciated!)


    • nancyholzner

      Hi Melanie,

      I’m so glad that my posts have something to offer you. From what you write, it sounds to me like your love of reading and writing is something that won’t be denied. That’s essential. You’re not unusual at all in running out of steam after a story gets off to a great start. I think I’ve written before about getting bogged down in the “mushy middle” of a story. At that point, the possibilities inherent in the opening have narrowed because of choices I’ve made, but the end still seems a long way off. Often I feel like I’m in one of those “you can’t get there from here” situations. Yet eventually (and possibly after a couple of drafts) I do find a way.

      I hope you’ll believe me when I say that the thing to do is press on, anyway. There are a number of ways to do this. Think ahead to the next big scene (the intermediate goal that you’re writing toward), and then write a list of scenes that will get you there from where you are right now. Or just jump ahead and write the upcoming scene, even if you’re not yet sure how to connect it to where you are now. Or put the narrative aside and do some character work–interview a character, rewrite a scene from a different character’s point of view, fill out or add details to character info sheets. Or listen to Anne Lamott’s wisdom and realize that everyone writes “shitty first drafts.” Let your first draft be awful, terrible, foolish, embarrassing (no one has to see it). For me, once I’ve drafted a story and seen how it plays out from beginning to end, I can see much more clearly how to fix it in the next draft.

      IMO, learning to become a writer requires two main things: read widely and write daily (or as close to daily as possible). Push past your doubts and finish something–that’s when you can look it over and start to see ways to improve it. Those characters clamoring for your attention want their stories told. With time, effort, perseverance, and faith, you can tell them.

  • Deborah Blake

    *hugs* You can do it. Hang in there!

  • Diva

    Oh goodness. First of all, my most positive thoughts go out for your husband’s health and recovery. Secondly, to borrow from the tale of the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.

    You just keep taking care of your husband and writing when you can. We’ll be here waiting for you. 🙂

    • nancyholzner

      Thank you so much! It’s a little frustrating to go back to slow and steady after I thought I’d discovered the secret to speed, but you’re absolutely right.

  • twimom227

    Sending healing thoughts for your husband your way. Family comes first and we’ll still be here when you find your muse again. OR, I’ll send Tina in to annoy you until you start up again!

  • nancyholzner

    Thanks, Jen. Your good thoughts are very much appreciated. And Tina *has* been trying to get my attention lately. 🙂

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