Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

Writer’s Block

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

Last week’s twitter chat hosted by the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University provided tips to combat writer’s block. A whole host of writers participated with some sound advice: rereading favourite authors, staying at your desk until the fog cleared, walking away from the work for a while. I have tried all of these tips with a good deal of success. This discussion got me thinking about other advice I’ve been given and the tricks I have built into own my practice to keep me writing. Let’s face it, writing is bloody hard, anytime, but particularly when the sun is shining and there are so many other things to do.

A few years ago we hosted author Richard Wagamese. He read at the main festival and participated in our Authors in the Schools Program. Richard told the grade 12 students in his session (all had read his novel, Indian Horse) that he had never experienced writer’s block. Asked how that was possible he said, “One word follows another, then another.” It sounded so elegantly simple.

I didn’t believe him though and I’m sure the kids didn’t either.

But then he put on an incredible demonstration. Richard asked the students to throw out a word, any word. A shy girl giggled. Banana.

Richard proceeded to tell a five-minute story about a marginalized little boy with a strange name. At the heart of the story was the word, banana. The kids cheered and clapped. I got tear-eyed. It was possible: put down one word, another and still another would follow. Anytime I get stuck, I hear Richard’s voice in my head.

When I first met him, author, Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negros and The Illegal) asked me how much of my first novel was finished. I’m sure he’d already figured out my weakness: editing my work to death.

I had eight chapters, I said. I had kept rewriting them over and over again because I wanted to get them right. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

When Lawrence asked the question, though, I came to realize that editing was my method of procrastinating. I didn’t know how to go forward so I kept editing, hoping to find my way. Lawrence said, “If you don’t finish it, you never will. Edit later. For now, get it done.”

I felt as though I was given permission to go on, finish my novel. I try to remember this advice whenever I catch myself editing the same first line of a chapter 25 times.

From my own practice, I have also learned that the more I sit (or rather now stand) at my desk, the more the words come. Even if I’ve only got 15 minutes, I open my manuscript. At least this way I’ve been in and touched my project. My characters stay with me throughout the day/ even when I’m out doing other things. Ideas come.

And when I’m stuck I ask myself over and over again, what am I trying to say, then I write whatever comes into my head. I can always go back later, uncover what I want to keep and ditch the rest. This nudges me forward.

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