Writer’s block is a malady experienced not only by writers, but by anyone who has ever put quill to parchment, pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, stylus to clay tablet or iPad.
I’ve done extensive research on the subject while I was supposed to be writing this blog post. The word block, it turns out, is the appropriate word for this affliction.
block noun \ˈbläk\
Writer’s block can be overcome. The secret spell can be found in a oft-repeated and oft-overlooked quote by Ernest Hemingway:
‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’
I was wrestling with writer’s block (it was winning) when that quote came to mind. Couldn’t hurt, I decided. And without thinking, ruminating, or procrastinating, I jotted down the truest sentence I knew. It was like an ice block had melted, liberating the words that had been hidden behind it. Wow, that Hemingway guy knew what he was talking about.
Those true sentences aren’t solely for the writer. They’re for the reader as well because they reach inside and echo through the soul. If a sentence jumps off the page at me, I know something from the heart of the writer has touched me. Twice in my life, sentences that rang true have brought me to tears. Not the emotional tears that good writing can evoke from sadness, happiness, or rage. These tears were for the beauty of the words themselves.
This line from Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “A Temporary Matter,” struck me as the truest thing I’d ever read:
The doctor explained that these things happen. He smiled in the kindest way it was possible to smile at people known only professionally.
Looking at it now, it seems such a simple sentence of mundane words, yet it made me cry. Simplicity makes truth easier to grasp.
The dedication below still brings tears to my eyes. I can’t explain why, even to myself, except to say maybe it’s a love letter from a writer to his craft. It’s John Steinbeck’s East of Eden dedication to his editor, Pascal Covici:
Yesterday, my husband and I, along with our five kids, celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. Thirty years of marriage. Thirty years of blog post fodder for rumination. I think I’ll write about sex.
You may be thinking:
I’ve been asked occasionally (by other women, of course) if sex after so many years with the same guy gets boring. In my younger days, I wondered/worried myself about that happening. Let’s be honest, no matter how long you’ve been with someone, sometimes it’s boring. For my husband and me, it’s much better (seriously) than it was when we got married for a few reasons: maturity, intimacy, imagination, and Natural Family Planning.
Before I continue, let’s get passed the roadblocks that may have appeared:
- This post is about my sex life, not my religious beliefs, lifestyle, or the way I fold my socks.
- NFP is not your mother’s fallible rhythm method. This is the new scientifically improved sympto-thermo method. We’ve been practicing it for twelve years and have never experienced an unexpected pregnancy. Believe it or not, we planned those five kids.
- This isn’t going to be a graphic blog post. I write only fictional sex scenes.
Back to Natural Family Planning and the Familiarity That Devours Everything. I’m going to add Cheez-Its to the mix. Trust me. This will work.
Give me a box of Cheez-Its and chances are I’ll eat the entire thing. At first, I savor every gloriously cheesy square. Soon, I’m enjoying handfuls but not paying much attention to them. I can’t stop eating them until it hits me that I’m ready to vomit. Here’s the sad thing—the box must be stashed far away from me, or I’ll keep eating them. I put them away, but a few hours later I’m thinking about them again. I get the box, nestle it on my lap, and dig in. But I’m not really paying attention to the crunchy goodness anymore. I’m just eating them because I crave them. When Cheez-Its are in the cupboard, it’s easy to take them for granted.
Sex can be like that.
An endless supply of instant gratification isn’t always gratifying. Or enjoyable. But think of the anticipation and excitement you feel at the approach of pumpkin spice latte season, or the Superbowl, or the new season of Downton Abbey, or baseball’s opening day. YOU CAN’T WAIT. But you have to.
When you practice Natural Family Planning, there is an eight to twelve day period when pregnancy may occur. If you want to get pregnant that’s the time to go for it, but if you don’t want to get pregnant then sex is off-limits.
Taking a break from sex is difficult, but it has some positive effects:
My husband and I were skeptical when we heard that practicing NFP would improve our marriage, especially our sex life. It’s not the only reason familiarity hasn’t devoured us, but it’s a great weapon to have in our arsenal.
After reading The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I become intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me.
I decide to read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, because the characters are thinly veiled sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. And because Ernest is a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal?
I buy the book, eager to read this minimalist style I keep hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encounter these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.
EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Aren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Isn’t Hemingway himself the icon of lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?
I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I have the feeling that I’ve read this type of writing before. Then it hits me. It sounds like something my thirteen-year-old had written. And the shallow characters bewilder me. I’m confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I try dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only gets worse.
My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, comes to visit and notices the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles. He picks it up, and after telling me how brilliant it is, he asks how I like it.
“I don’t,” I whine. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”
My brother puts on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”
The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”
My brother nods, already immersed in the book.
“But what about the adverbs and the thens and ands?” I ask in a slightly less whiny voice.
My brother and my oldest daughter say in unison, “You’re over analyzing it. Just read it and enjoy it.”
My daughter is compelled to continue because she loves analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruin it when you analyze so much.”
So, I confiscate the book from my brother and start over— just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That makes all the difference. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I couldn’t put it down; thank God it’s not that long. I even find myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I rather think I’ll enjoy it.
First posted in 8/2011
Writing the book is the easy part. Getting it into the hands of readers, that is a daunting task. But I’m here to help. I’ll be contributing a series of posts explaining the journey to traditional publication at the Michigan SCBWI newsletter, The Mitten.
Today’s post, Beyond the Book-The Path to Traditional Publishing, gives a brief outline of the process and provides information on submitting to literary agents and acquisitions editors. Check it out.
You know that feeling. The heartsick compassion when persons thousands of miles away, in another culture, another world, suffer from tragedy. Earthquakes, tsunamis, war—how horrific, the pain inflicted on others. Yet deep down, there is a sigh of relief:
It’s not happening here.
Twenty-one Coptic Christians brutally beheaded by terrorists in Libya. Other atrocities captured on video, including the execution of 300 Syrian soldiers, a man being burned alive, a child shooting an alleged Israeli spy. We watch with horrified eyes.
Thank God, it’s not happening here.
In February, a friend who lives in the area asks for prayers because someone she knows has been kidnapped by the Islamic State (ISIS). That poor man, and his family, and my friend.
Still, it doesn’t happen here.
Until last week. It happens here, in my town, to a person I know. Another Catholic. While ministering at a local hospital, terrorists threaten this person and this person’s family if the person does not convert to Islam. The police are notified, this person’s house put under surveillance.
Its shadow has arrived.
A few days later, our church offers a Mass for the twenty-one Coptic martyrs. I lector and my family attends. And a shadow of dread flutters through my heart because we are the hated enemy, praying for victims who died for their faith. Casualties in the war against us. During the Mass, the apprehension slips from my mind. But it returns on the way home.
It’s only a matter of time…
I worry about my children and my home and my neighborhood. We pull into our driveway, and I’m confronted by the statue of the Holy Family in my front yard and the angel under a tree. Declarations of the people who live here. For a brief moment, I panic. I have to get those things out of sight. But courage overshadows the fear. No, I don’t have to hide anything. They’re just where they’re supposed to be, proclaiming who we are.
Have no fear. I am with you.
My muse came to life on a summer day a few years ago. She smacked me upside the head and said, “Get to work.” I grabbed a pencil and a scrap of paper (I wasn’t at home) and dived into writing the novel that had been living inside my head for years.
The first draft flowed from my head to my fingers to the keyboard (As soon as I got home, I ditched the scrap paper.) until I came to the first sex scene. In a novel about marriage and infidelity in today’s culture, sex is going to happen. I just needed to write it.
In the early drafts, a sex scene went like this:
They spent another passionate night together.
Seriously. And that was one of the racier scenes.
I asked a few people to read the completed manuscript, including a marriage counselor. I just hoped they wouldn’t be offended by all the sex. I needn’t have worried. The marriage counselor told me the sex scenes were too vague. As for the women who read it, none of them mentioned sex in their feedback. They were probably too embarrassed to bring it up. I asked them if they thought there was too much sex. And they responded, “What sex?”
I mulled on this for awhile, but my muse got tired of waiting and spelled it out for me. When I wrote those scenes, they were playing out in my mind. So the words they were intimate or they spent a passionate night together, brought to my mind some graphic images. For the reader, those words evoked NOTHING. That was an invaluable writing lesson.
The secret to sex scenes was to choose the shade of grey needed to convey the image in my head to the reader without crossing the invisible, arbitrary line of TMI (Too much information). I needed to choose a shade of grey between one and fifty, one being light grey and fifty being dark slate Christian grey.
So, I rewrote the sex scenes using plain vanilla grey.
They kissed with desperate excitement, removing each other’s clothing in an eager frenzy. His lips moved over her body…
Not much better than the first. Why? Because writing these damn scenes was HARD. It was easier for me to bare my soul in my writing, than to bare my characters physically.
I tried again, taking a page from Victoria Holt and Harlequin romance novels. This shade was Silver Moonstone Purple Prose grey. My muse refuses to take credit for this version. And I can’t bring myself to share an entire passage. But here is a sample so you can get the general, painful idea:
…nothing she imagined could have prepared her for that night, unbelievable pleasure, engulfed her, rapture, heady passion, fire welled up, consume her…
Time to choose another shade of grey. I drank a glass of wine, closed my eyes and wrote what I saw in my mind while trying to walk the tightrope of what would be acceptable for the genre and audience. My muse patted me on the back when I’d finished and said, “You’re going to need another glass of wine because I have a great idea…”
It works, you know. If you pinch yourself while you’re dreaming, you can’t feel it. I learned when I was young, during an awesome dream about David Cassidy. I pinched myself. I didn’t feel anything. In my dream, I realized David Cassidy was a dream. Dream ruined.
I had another dream, but this one was for my life. I wanted to make books. And I’d chased that dream with high hopes and lots of enthusiasm. The book had been written. Literary agents researched, stalked, and researched some more. Queries sent. Waiting endured.
Just before Christmas 2014, Steven Chudney, an agent on my short list, sent an email offering to represent me. It was, literally, a dream come true. I was afraid to pinch myself, but I did jump up and down with such exuberance, my kids thought I’d fallen down the stairs.
After accepting his offer, I waited for the dreamer’s pinch to wake me up: he’d changed his mind, he’d sent the email to the wrong person, or any of the million reasons I’d created in my mind.
It never came.
Steven had some perceptive advice on a few additional scenes the story needed. I worked on them and the copy edits he sent. I learned from these edits, among other things, that tee shirt and t-shirt are incorrect. It’s always T-shirt, people. I also realized how many times I use the word T-shirt.
I got the edits to him just after Christmas. He liked them and told me this baby was almost ready to go. Our book baby. Ours because we’d formed a partnership. It felt so good not to be in this alone anymore.
But first we needed to come up with a name. He thought A Voice Among the Thorns wasn’t teen friendly. Titles are not my forte, as you can see by some of my post titles, and I was on-board with changing it. We threw some ideas at each other and agreed on Ask Me to Wait. Steven’s idea. I loved it.
He began submitting it to editors and told me it would be two weeks to two months before we heard anything. That’s when it struck me that “ask me to wait” is a very utilitarian phrase—book title and writer mantra rolled into one.
Now I wait. They say it builds character.
Today I took my youngest daughter to see the Nutcracker Ballet for her first time. She was focused on the dancing, but I was focused on Clara. Clara is relegated to her little throne in The Land of Sweets for most of the second act, with nothing to do but watch the ballet and listen to the music. She may smile graciously and applaud delicately like a princess, but you know her mind is buzzing around like a bee in a flower garden.
When the Nutcracker Princes crowns her, Clara smiles serenely, but she’s thinking, “They’ll never believe this at school.” Later as she reaches to adjust the glittering crown, she mutters, “This crown is killing me. But I’ll bet it looks awesome.”
As the Nutcracker Prince dances for Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara watches with wide eyes. “Forget Team Jacob or Team Edward. I’m on Team Nutcracker Prince now.” Then she remembers her horrid little brother and a smirk plays across her face (it’s quickly masked by a gracious smile), “I think I’ll have Nutcracker Prince dance on Fritz’s face when we get back.”
Clara watches the Sugar Plum Fairy with annoyance— “That Sugar Plum Fairy is such a show off. But her tutu is to die for.”— before her attention is captured by the Arabian dancers (actually, just the male dancer). “Who is that? Hmmm, I think I want to meet him.”
She eagerly awaits the end of the performance, until she realizes the Nutcracker is dancing the Pas de Deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara’s smile wavers. “Why is he dancing with her? He never looked at me that way. Hey, where’s his head?”
Clara is filled with bitter fury. “It’s not fair. I loved him when he was an ugly little nutcracker.”
As the ballet draws to an end Clara smiles and waves, graciously accepting the Nutcracker Prince’s hand and the bows and curtsies of the dancers. But you know when the curtain closes there will be hell to pay.
Originally posted 12/11