Devan Sipher will be leading a workshop on memoir writing, October 15; visit the class page for information on Memoir: How to Tell Your Story: Insightful Guidance for Writing
by Devan Sipher
One of the most frequent questions that students ask me is how do you overcome writer’s block, and my advice is very simple: Embrace it.
When I worked full time at The New York Times, one of the things I learned about myself was that I have writer’s block on EVERYTHING I write. No matter how small the assignment, I would find reasons to resist, resent, and regret the task. But what I also learned at the Times was I was very good at churning out articles every week on deadline.
The confidence that came with publishing articles every week allowed me to stop fearing my writer’s block. In fact, I not only came to accept procrastination, fear and dread as part of my “process,” I started allotting time for them in my schedule. Literally. I scheduled time each week for doing everything in my power to avoid writing.
All I can say is it worked for me. In nine years of writing for the Times, I’ve never missed a deadline. And when I wrote my first novel, The Wedding Beat (loosely based on my experience at the Times), I generated a chapter a week. I wish I had a prettier process. But mostly I just sit at my computer and pray for inspiration. Well, that’s not entirely true. I also eat. Check Facebook updates. And shop online, which I consider work-related if I buy books that will help motivate me.
But the trick is that I accept that, so a typical writing week for me goes something like this:
Mondays are set aside for avoiding writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t TRY to write. I sit down every Monday morning with the best of intentions. But nothing is more terrifying than a blank page. Oh, sure, for the first minute or so it’s thrilling. So many possibilities. But that’s the problem. There are SO many possibilities. How do I choose? And what’s the point in choosing to do anything, when it’s been so well documented that people don’t read (in numerous academic articles that no one reads)? I spend a great deal of time on Mondays contemplating the decline of the publishing industry and the odds of an extraterrestrial attack.
On Tuesdays, I move on to the more specific topic of why I’m not capable of writing.(even if I were to somehow decide on something to write). Lack of talent and lack of skill usually top the list. Followed by my conviction that I’ve chosen the wrong subject matter. Tuesdays are when I consider going back to medical school.
By Wednesday, I WANT to write. I really do. But I can’t until I catch up on all the things I’ve fallen behind on doing while obsessing about (but not actually doing any) writing: things like laundry, grocery shopping, and clipping my toenails. Wednesday is a very productive day — just not for my writing.
By Thursday, I’m starting to panic. Which means a lot of eating. Followed by a lot of exercise. Then a lot of fretting about the lost time. But since I’ve already decided that I can’t write and shouldn’t write, the pressure is off to write anything particularly brilliant. Somehow that liberates me to do some of my best work.
Friday and Saturday are a mad dash to get everything down before my ideas evaporate. Ideas are a lot like soap bubbles, ephemeral and misshapen. But the text is not like soap bubbles. The text is hewn, word by word, and it emerges slowly, like a Michelangelo sculpture freeing itself from the marble that imprisons it. (Mixing metaphors is allowed on Saturdays before 6 pm.)
Then Sunday, I rewrite and polish and pat myself on the back for trusting myself enough. Writing, like anything worthwhile, is a struggle. The courage required to succeed in that struggle is a triumph of faith over fear. So there’s something to be said for admitting and honoring those fears in order to overcome them. Or that’s how I feel on Sundays. But Monday is another day. And Facebook beckons.
Devan Sipher, MFA, a writer for The New York Times, and has over a decade’s experience as a ghost editor of memoirs released by major publishing houses. He is also a contributor to The Huffington Post and author of The Wedding Beat, a loosely autobiographical novel. Rumor has it he was the wedding columnist James Marsden portrayed in the film “27 Dresses.”
Devan Sipher will be leading a workshop on memoir writing, October 15, visit the class page for information on Memoir: How to Tell Your Story: Insightful Guidance for Writing