Last week, for the first time since I started to write for the blog, I approached the blank page and the words simply refused to come. I had an old piece from April ready. What I needed to write was an intro for the piece.
I had the idea of what I wanted. I had a few words floating around in my head. Plus a couple of fully formed sentences. And I knew that as soon as I got those few words and sentences on the blank page, the other words would – naturally – flow without hesitation. Just as they had before that day. They did flow alright. Only that they came to a bracing halt one-hundred words later.
So I tried a few creativity tricks to get the ball bearings moving. I listened to Fleet Foxes and Fiona Apple. Nothing. I took a walk. Nothing. I started a free writing exercise hopeful that I would surprise the words and arrest them amidst the free flow. Nothing. I took another walk, this time longer. Nothing. I read the New Yorker. Nothing. I left my desk and stood beneath the cedar tree that’s rooted in the pavement right in front of my office building. I leaned against one of the street bollards, stuffed my hands into the front pockets of my jeans and rested the bottom of my left foot against the bollard. My shoulders slouched forward. I ran my bottom jaw chewing on raspberry-flavoured bubble gum. I was a cigarette away from being mistaken for a lesbian. A kale lesbian. Nothing. I watched Nairobi folk strolling in the sweltering heat of a cloudless blue sky, my aim to steal a quirk from a passerby and incorporate it into my story. Forty minutes on the clock. Nothing.
It was now early afternoon. And my blank page was still blank, save for the bottom half of the slush pile story that was yearning for an intro. It felt half-naked. It felt like we were both embarrassed to look each other in the eye: he because he was suddenly aware of his nakedness and I because of my inability to clothe him as he desired. It was Adam and Eve in the Garden all over again.
I knew I had to post something. Anything. I finally sought the guided wisdom of one of my go-to writers. I opened a new chat.
“The words refused to come today,” I said. My voice trembled. It reeked of the timidity of a novice, with a desperate mix of plead and pity.
“It’s OK. It happens to every writer once in a while,” he responded.
“So, what do I do?”
“Fall back on the basics. Say what you need to say then leave it at that. What did you need to say?”
“I needed to say that I celebrated my birthday last week.”
“Have you said that already?”
“Yes. I have.”
“Good. Then leave the story alone. You can’t help it now, and neither will it you.”
I sighed in response.
I continued. “But there is a gaping hole between the intro and the body of the story. My readers will sink into that hole without warning. I have sunk into that hole without warning.”
He laughed out loud. “Never underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Your readers are sharp; they will find themselves in the hole but they will come out of it. And they will catch on. No doubt.”
“What about tomorrow, will the words come tomorrow?”
“Yes, they will. Be easy.”
I nodded then signed out of the chat.
I was needy. Over-dramatic. Unsettled with a heightened sense of clock panic. So I brushed through the story one last time and posted it with its unsatisfactory intro. And I walked away from it, with a belief that it would stand on its own and that my, ahem, intelligent readers would catch on to what I was after. The gaping hole notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the last time the words will refuse to come. And a reminder to fall back on the basics is yet another one to add to my growing list of young writers’ ageless knowledge. Here are a few others I have collected through the months.
Reminder #1: Creativity is not static
When you start to write for the newspaper, you will get a ready audience. You will get paid for your story – on time and without fail. And you will learn plenty. You will learn that there is more to writing than just composing words on a blank page. You will learn how to generate ideas and follow them up with stories. You will get exposure. And by extension, your blog will get some traffic because newspaper readers are curious to see what turns up when they Google search your byline. It’s all sunny on that side.
But on the flipside, I find my creativity waxes and wanes as I change audience between writing for the blog and writing for the newspaper: the latter, for me, is limited in creativity. I consider writing to be about this creativity. About the wordplay. About the colour of the prose. About the spirituality words evoke simply because they have been placed in a particular order. The creativity behind writing is what makes it an art. And it is this art I am drawn to.
So how do I strike this creativity balance? Ernest Hemingway advises. In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review, the interviewer asked Hemingway if he would suggest newspaper writing for the young writer, “How helpful was the training you received with the Kansas City Star?”
“On The Star,” Hemingway said, “you were forced to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”
I cracked a smile at the quip.
I have been told creativity of the art is not a static state. It is evolving. Which means you can adjust it according to the demands of the space you intend to play in. That way, even if the creativity defines a good day and not-so-good day, it balances itself out in the end.
Reminder #2: Rejection never ends
I ran amok with the assumption that just because my story got published the first time, and another got published the second time, that I was assured of yet another getting published the third time.
Make no mistake: rejection never ends. Your story getting rejected is a constant of the writing gig. And don’t expect a response detailing why it has been rejected. Silence is in itself rejection.
The difference between rejection now and rejection six months ago, is that rejection now is easier to accept. It doesn’t pinch me as it used to. It doesn’t feel like a hostile attack on my capabilities as a writer. Or a stab to my fragile ego, and delicate confidence levels.
Rejection is part of the game. In fact, I now reject my own stories; there’s unpublished stuff I wrote months ago, and I cringe my nose in disgust whenever I read through them. It doesn’t mean the stories are not good now, it just means they are not good enough.
Reminder #3: Ask for patience
I stumbled upon a webpage in June this year. And I have kept it open on my web browser every day since. The author titles it ‘The 7 Cardinal Virtues of Successful Writers.’ Catchy title, with even catchier content.
I have read and reread these virtues until I know each one by heart. Virtue number six talks about patience to face constant rejection. I look at it as patience to get your writing to where you need it to be. Patience to get to where you need to be as a writer.
So how am I fairing to that end? Poorly: I am still writing way below my desired personal quota. I am still taking over a fortnight to put together a ‘simple’ story. I am still giving my stories days of rest between the final draft and sending in copy. I am still fussy with puny details of my work. I take too long to write. And take even longer to rewrite.
But it’s all OK. “Give it a few years and you may achieve mediocrity,” the Virtues say. “Give it a decade or two, and you might even get good. This is not a lifestyle for those who lack endurance. Patience, more than anything, is mandatory for mastering the craft.”
I like that last part: Patience is mandatory for mastering the craft.
Reminder #4: Stories will never run out
The worry non-writers echo is this: what if you run out of things to write about? What if you wake up one morning and have no more words inside of you?
Remember this: as long as you are breathing, you will never run out of stories, or of things to write about. Never.
One of my blog readers left me a link in late June. Chao’s link takes me to the page of an Australian poet called Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke reads like he’s always having a terrible day; barking orders from behind a wooden desk and whatnot. Rilke is stern on the whiney writers who lack inspiration because, they say, of not travelling the world. Or of not surrounding themselves with the artsy and creative types enough. Or of dragging their feet through the greyscale monotony of their life’s routines.
Rilke says of this, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it. Blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. For the creator, there is no poverty.”
Reminder #5: Writing is pure joy
Those moments. Those moments when the writing is going on well; when the words are filling up the pages, creating sentences that are unexpectedly knocking you over your seat. When your mind has been elevated to a Zen-like state. When the rest of the world fades away into obscurity, and it’s just you and the words. When nothing else matters – neither creativity nor rejection, neither patience nor routines – just you and the words.
Those moments, in those moments, writing is nothing but pure joy.