Stuff of yellow post-its

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.


My head was pounding from a terrible headache

Comments (12)

  1. Evans T

    Don’t we just wish we could always have “those moments” but how she evades us. Nonetheless, we sit on the front porch, heads between our knees and wait for her return. For then, and only then, does writing make sense…at least for me

    • fra

      Sometimes we get them EvansT, other times we don’t.
      Thanks for your read.

  2. Aditnar

    Been looking forward to the next piece after “Saturn”…. You write easy when you are not trying to lecture- you have a way of painting a vivid picture when you put your thoughts and experiences down…. My opinion- that is your niche, Fra. But that is just my opinion.
    I can’t help but look forward to your next piece and watch you grow in your writing journey. Keep writing, even the best writers get writer’s block…
    Ps. I am trying not to use (!) in my writing these days ;)

    • fra

      Thanks for the encouraging words Aditnar.
      It is a writing journey. Sigh.
      PS. How about we don’t give ‘it’ a name? How about we say simply ‘the words refused to come today’? :-)

    • artfullyContrived

      The thoughts, the experiences the feelings,the ease with which she lets us into her life makes the article worth reading.

    • fra

      There are several G.
      It depends on what the issue is.

    • Aditnar

      Yeah, guess that makes ‘it’ sound temporal/more acceptable… I concur ;)

  3. dskuwe

    Have you read Robert Greene’s Mastery? It about mastering an art form. OK its not a self help book. So what if it is? We all need help at some point in our lives no matter how good we are at what we do.

    I curse the low self-esteem self-help book junkies who can’t do without self-help books. You know them. The ones that use self-help books as manuals on how to live their own lives. They really ruined self-help books for the confident doityourselfers. (Come to think about it, the bible is an example of a self help book you know?) I wonder what the confident doityourselfers have to say to that? And just in case they have something to say. Atheism is a religion itself complete with fanatics and bigots. Know what a fanatic is? One who will not change his mind and will not change the topic. Know what a bigot is? What the confident do it yourselfers put their dictionaries in the same dustbin as they did the self help books?

    Depending on how you look at the statement in brackets, I have either elevated the self help book back to its glory days (I mean if the Bible is a self help book?), or i have lowered the bible down to self-help book level. Then I remember that bit you said about brackets. Dayam! And exclamation marks.

    OK OK the call off the lynch mob and withdraw the “you are going to hell”, statments. This is not about political correctness. I am just trying to recommend a book here.

    Mastery – Robert Greene, good read. Read it and you will be more inclined towards being a master at what you do if you already ain’t one.

    Loved the piece. Its really good work.

    • fra

      Thanks for the colorful comment dskuwe. Much appreciated.

      No, I’ve never read Mastery by Robert Greene. It’s 2014 though, and I am open to new things so I will find and read it. The LA Times review (via the link you have given below) says the book is crap. That the tips he has suggested at achieving mastery are suspicious. Hehhe. That “most of us will never get anywhere near mastery at anything because we are either too stupid, too lazy, too unimaginative, too happy, too poorly educated, too encumbered by children and elderly parents or too unlucky.”
      All the same I will read it. Have you?

      Listen, I shared the same sentiments about self-help books until I read the Monk-Ferrari book. My opinion? These self-helpers, and the Bible, are helpful only to the extent you let them. And to the extent you need them to. All else will reveal itself to you as life unfurls. I am stuck on page 66 of the Monk-Ferrari, and I am uncertain to the life event that will get me to the remainder of the book.

      Thanks for the read. And comments :-). I look forward to hearing from you more.

  4. dskuwe
    Here is a review of the book from the L.A. times.
    And that word right there is “its”.

    PS. Your writing is very powerfull. But choose your battles carefully. What ever you have against exclamation marks and brackets needs to get solved fast. You don’t want them conspiring against you to the pen gods. They have been there for a long time and might even have favor with the pen gods.

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