The dreaded empty page

Bombed by Self Doubt

NaNoWriMo Day 9

Previous: Writing Is All About The Coffee (Day 7)

Feeling: blocked

I got bombed by grenades of self doubt this morning; projectiles that screamed like raging, unattended missiles, leaving me with feelings of worthlessness, pointlessness, and conviction that I will never, ever be a good writer, so I should give up. Right now.

So I’ve written nothing, aside from four pages of handwritten “morning pages” in my notebook figuring out why I’m blocked.

Yesterday didn’t bode well for writing, either, as I forcefully yanked a minimal 955 words out of my head.

I see now, after a giant meltdown (with public apologies to my partner and our daughter), the block came from writing in a way that doesn’t come natural to me, and the self-judgement that follows from doing something very badly.

It started with the extraordinary post in my NaNoWriMo 2013collection, NaNoWriMo: Discover Your Setting.

I wish I could capture how much I gleaned from this well-written, scrupulously edited and polished post. It lead me to ponder the geographical places where my novel lives. Aside from San Francisco,where I live, I had references to a real town in Nebraska that I made biased assumptions about, and another vague reference to Oklahoma.

I’ve been to Omaha, NE once, for 2 days, and never been to the OK state, but I’ve seen Oklahoma! and wonder whether that should count?

So I sat down Friday morning, late (meaning 6:30) and tried to write. I thought about how much of the surrounding scene and setting I should include. How I would describe the look and feel of a train station I’d never seen, the musty smell of the train as my character boards, and try to force all of these details out of my playful, but often petulant inner writer, who doesn’t care what color the train seats are, she wants to know how our girl is going to get out of trouble. My Inner Writer sat down on her haunches and refused to give me anything.

I don’t write in scenes and settings, not in my first, meaning not fit for other human eyes, draft. I write in action, movement. What are my people doing? Who are they doing it with? I only have the barest sense of placement in the world.

Sometimes I describe a place fully, starting with the porcupine black and white beard of a street musician, playing for everyone and no one next to the links of chain circling the cable car turnaround on Powell Street.

Mostly, though, I don’t delve into the setting on my first drafts, because I’m impatient to find out what the story is and what’s going to happen to my people. Like my playful, Inner Writer, I want to know how much trouble my girls are going to get into, and how they get out of it.

In my first drafts, I’m getting my story down; putting words on electronic paper. Much later when I read, I will edit out the repetition and noise, and find the essence of the story. Then I will add the details, like the whisper of late autumn sun on a wide orange maple leaf, that my character notices as she walks down an avenue in her her small Nebraskan town. How she’s not in a rush to get home (and why). I will make sure a small Nebraskan town actually has these kinds of trees, these kinds of avenues, before I am complete.

I might even go out to this small town in Nebraska that’s on the same Amtrak California Zephyr train line where I put my girl. I’ve travelled on this train in the opposite direction, but only as far as Colorado. I may even hop a plane to Oklahoma and see if the musical is purely fiction, or if there is a modicum of truth that represents the State today.

I might serendipitously meet someone from Oklahoma, who can describe the place for me and the feel of their downtown. I’ll ask if the town felt small, or did it feel big, until this person left home for somewhere bigger.

I will ask the questions to glean what is a big town, to somewhere with a population smaller than the University I attended?

I will remember a conversation from seven years ago, while talking to an esthetician during waxing, who lived in Hawaii for a while.

My esthetician described her the native Hawaiian boyfriend, how they broke up, and I asked her, “Did the island ever feel small?”

“Only when I wasn’t with him.”

I will remember that line, even now, seven years later, and the purple wax she used that didn’t hurt as much as dark green, and wonder if it will someday work its way into a story.

But if I try to forcefully capture all of these details now, excruciatingly, during the draft my inner child-like writer adores, where she gets to play with words and not have an editor sitting on her shoulder, the irascibility erupts, and the words…

The words stop.

So, my darling inner writer, I will be true to you now, and I will bookmark for later all of the helpful ideas about how to make our story better.

Because I wholeheartedly agree with the aforementioned post, that if my girl is from Nebraska, I better know it really, really well.

But not until December.

Word count: 14,275 + 955 yesterday + 0 so far today = 15,230

Word count update (after this post was written and edited, twice) =
15,320 + 1,320 = 16,640

Next: Off of the bench & back on the page (Day 10)

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Julie Russell

Julie Russell

Previous Eng Manager, SRE at Medium | Board Member of NaNoWriMo nonprofit | Member of Alabama Street Writing Group | Opinions are all & always mine.

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