Can I see the course syllabus for life?
February 25, 2016 12:01 PM   Subscribe

I've been having a bit of a rough time for the last while, and I'd like to try to start writing to help me work through some things. Turns out, that's easier said than done. Can you help me get going?

To be fair, my life is pretty good, in the sense that I am fed, sheltered, loved, traveled, and so on. My problems would fall more into the category of generalized gloom. Bored at work, unstimulated (despite having a million and a half hobbies), uninspired, unambitious, nostalgic for the time when I could credibly say I had some intellectual pursuits, upset by my difficulty in conceiving, unable to move beyond the "Are you fucking kidding me?" stage of accepting a Christmas Eve miscarriage,* and on and on....

I keep wanting to write, in some way, about this constellation of frustration, which seems like a perfectly natural and easy thing to do. But I find that this solution is part of my problem, and my inability to write about myself to my own admittedly unrealistic standards is making me feel even worse. I've done the whole stream of consciousness thing, and it's fine, I guess, but I just yearn to do more. Writing is supposed to be the thing that I am good at, and it is something that has, on occasion, given me something approaching satisfaction. But I realize that, despite having written god knows how many hundreds of thousands of words, I've never written anything about myself. Even in school when I had to write personal essays, I would always construct some sort of elaborate structure in which to couch anything personal. I am an essayist at heart, but the worst kind of essayist!

I recall a creative writing** teacher who, in my year-end assessment, noted that my best writing was always in response to the "homework"--the prompts that everyone in the class had to do, as if I could only be creative in response to a challenge or set of parameters. For better or for worse, that is very true for me, in every area of my life. And I think it's at the heart of my problem now: I don't know how to assign myself homework.*** I would like to be able to challenge myself to produce something, instead of just cheerlessly reading the internet every night.

Does anyone have any advice for the world's most reluctant diarist who is overfond of structure and argument? How do I get going and, more importantly, keep going?

*I mean, I can take a joke, but that's hitting below the belt, Santa!
**in fairness, I was in this class out of spite, not any particular affinity for creative writing
***and to head this off at the pass...yeah, I probably need therapy, so your challenge is (pre-emptively) accepted
posted by Mrs. Rattery to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Can you frame your story as a fictional narrative? If you find that too clever-clever, maybe you could add elements to your own story that don't exist in real life. Perhaps a magical realism quest in which the heroine has to overcome/get past your own issues in order to do the thing that will save the kingdom/city, or something?
posted by xingcat at 12:06 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fresh air and so much exercise!
posted by aniola at 12:07 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

There are journals with writing prompts, if you need some structure just to encourage free writing. One example here, plenty more if you search "writing prompts journal."

Also, and I understand if you're skeptical, but a lot of fanfiction is authors working out personal issues using an existing toolset of a prebuilt world and characters. Is there a media property you know and like enough to write in for your own edification?
posted by Wretch729 at 12:15 PM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Like so many things, start small and do it regularly. My journalling habit–now stalled, unfortunately, but coming back–was built on writing two sentences in DayOne at the same time as I sat down at the computer to update the household budget. I always did it right after I either finished my daughter's bath or bed time. At first, you can only write two lines. Then, as you get better, give yourself the freedom to write more if you feel inspired.
posted by sincarne at 12:15 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm currently working my way through a book at the behest of this wonderful article I read a while back. It's been helpful! Might help you move past this block and stretch yourself. It's woo-woo, but it works?
posted by hollypolly at 12:19 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you thinking of something like Artist's Way?
posted by typecloud at 12:24 PM on February 25, 2016

Best answer: Alternatively to a purchased prompted writing journal, writing prompt jar to pick a topic for what to write in your journal. Make it a ritual - daily if you can, or a specific day of the week entered into your phone's calendar. Pick a piece of paper and write a paragraph.

You could work this into therapy too. Based on the direction of your conversation in that session or aims for next week's session, your therapist can suggest something for you to write on, to bring for next week to discuss.

The thing about keeping something going is that to make it a habit, you have to to stick with it for a month or two. Make a commitment to yourself to do it without fail for 2 months. Set a recurring reminder on your phone and don't procrastinate.
posted by lizbunny at 12:27 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm with xingcat - maybe consider writing fiction that sort of deals with your issues. Writing fiction is very cathartic for me, to the point where all my protagonists (including the male, several-hundred-year old, vampire history professor - and I am none of those) have a lot of my own issues, neuroses, etc. If I wrote literally about myself, I'd be bored and frustrated and super self-critical, but when I change some details and add vampires or spaceships or whatever (insert your own favorite fictional devices, of course), I can write in a much freer way that also feels better!

If you want general life homework that's unrelated to writing, I really loved Yoga with Adriene's recent 30-day Yoga Camp. It's all free on YouTube and is part yoga, part mindset-work/personal at-home therapy that I really enjoyed. Plus it's a 30 day challenge, so you have built in motivation to show up and do it every day!

Um, also, as a former high school teacher and general bossypants, I love giving homework, so if you want a random fellow female-of-reproductive-age/writer to give you a month or two of daily writing prompts (for fiction or nonfiction, your choice), memail me. I'd (seriously) be delighted.
posted by bananacabana at 12:37 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I recommend this book, The New Diary by Tristine Rainer, and I think you'll get a lot out of the experience. I used to teach journal writing and this was the book everyone planned to use forever. (If you look at this at Amazon, there are several other very good books listed under the "Also Bought" part of the page.
posted by Riverine at 12:51 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I have this type of writer's block, I use Dragon software and dictate. It comes out as a mess of disjointed paragraphs that need punctuation and organization, but I have a start of words on a page. Since I know it's going to need big rewrites, I don't feel obligated to have that narrative structured. I can start by talking my ideas.

Once I'm editing, correcting, supplementing and organizing, it becomes easier for me to start writing.
posted by 26.2 at 12:51 PM on February 25, 2016

Best answer: Some of my best stuff has come out of different types of challenges. Prompts in writing group, sure, but also deadlines with themes, severe word limits, etc. It may seem contrary but the constraints actually open up my creativity because I can't fall back on the familiar.

Creative non-fiction is what you want to write. Be willing to be bad at it. Welcome that, even. Take a look at "The Chronology of Water" by Lidia Yuknavitch. Blew my mind, her honesty, her courage, but also how she broke so many rules of writing to suit her purposes to great effect.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:57 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Highly recommend both Morning Pages and Natalie Goldburg's writing practice. I think writing prompts are soooo dumb, so the structure that works for me is writing for a certain amount of pages/time.

I also recommend you read Goldburg's entire book, Writing Down the Bones. She is a zen Buddhist, and she likens writing practice to meditation as a method for working through the shit in your life.
posted by Brittanie at 1:11 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to the above suggestions...if you like music or poetry you could choose a song/poem your like and for each stanza, write a few hundred/thousand autobiographical or semi-autobiographical words inspired by that stanza. If you prefer art, you could choose a set of paintings/photos and write a few hundred/thousand words inspired by that image.
posted by skye.dancer at 1:14 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recs for The Artist's Way. I skip the god stuff and focus on writing about the prompts and creating time for writing.

To keep myself from obsessing over how I'm not improving as a writer or as a person, I tend to throw out some stuff after I've written it.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:24 PM on February 25, 2016

Writing morning pages-- 3 pages or 750 words a day, whatever nonsense you like -- is great.

A gratitude journal is also great. In its most basic form, you just write down three sentences about things you're grateful for and why. If you wanted, you could try structuring it as three short paragraphs instead -- build it out a little bit.

For some reason, your question is making me think of The Book of Life ("it’s about the most substantial things in your life: your relationships, your income, your career, your anxieties"). The chapters are short and usually provocative; I bet you could take each chapter and use it as a writing prompt of sorts, or just a topic to respond to.

There are services that will email you daily writing prompts -- for instance ($25), for instance (free).
posted by ourobouros at 1:26 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I taught creative writing, I always gave my students Bernadette Mayer's List of Journal Ideas and Writing Experiments. It would keep you busy for quite some time.
posted by raisindebt at 1:49 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK you did already mention therapy, but I'm still going to take this opportunity to encourage it, for both your general situation and your specific question.

I'm a lot like you: consider myself "good" at writing; a perfectionist, sometimes to the extent that it extracts all joy and catharsis from the act of writing; attempting to recover from recent trauma that took place around the holidays; general dysthymia; NEED a challenge to keep me moving and distract from the existential dread.

Anyways I had a lot of stress I just wasn't dealing with leading up to, and in aftermath of, my Event. For whatever reason, I could not bring myself to write about it or anything else. I started seeing a therapist. I found it tremendously useful in ways I had never imagined, not least in that it made me think about my thoughts so much that I had to start writing stuff down just to keep track.

My therapist doesn't give me "homework" per se, but every time I walk out of a session I am inspired--no, compelled--to write down a flood of thoughts that comes on too quickly for me to self-edit. I always come in with pages of scribbles. Sometimes we talk about new revelations. Sometimes we discuss none of them. The point is that a lot of the important growth happens in between sessions, for me, through writing.

And, of course, they could help you work through some of the perfectionism and whatever other hangups are keeping you from expressing yourself on page. It's like having a really encouraging, insightful, knowledgeable friend you never have to feel guilty dumping your issues on. (At least this is the low-structure style I prefer, YMMV)
posted by ista at 2:35 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I taught creative writing, I always gave my students Bernadette Mayer's List of Journal Ideas and Writing Experiments.

I second this. Mayer's experiments are interesting, challenging, and frequently awesome.

Another one I use when I teach creative writing--which I got from my first poetry teacher-- is to give them a few pages from Joe Brainard's "I remember" (if you google, it, you can find excerpts) and tell them to write AT LEAST five pages of their own "I remember..." piece, preferably handwritten (because it prevents them from just copy-pasting "I remember " at the beginning of each line).

I have found--and my students have almost uniformly agreed--that there's something magically incantatory about doing this. Even though it can be awkward and difficultat first, by the third or fourth page you're unlocking things and making connections that you might never have been able to otherwise.

Fill an entire notebook this way, and you'll always have something to refer back to when you want to write and aren't sure what to write about.
posted by dersins at 3:30 PM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Is it possible that you are too close to the emotional content of your experience to write something that doesn't feel like a brain dump? Because that is totally a thing. You may simply need more emotional distance before you can write anything other than stream of consciousness. This could mean waiting it out, or going to therapy and working through it. It also sounds like you may be experiencing some symptoms of depression, so you might want to get that checked out.

In the meantime, can you join a writers' group that would give you that structure and accountability that you want? It could be online or in person, just something that would provide a deadline and some motivation.

And remember, as Ira Glass says, dissatisfaction with the level of one's craft is the first step to improving, and a sign that you have good taste :)
posted by ananci at 4:51 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

There are workbooks such as this one. Maybe there is one specifically for miscarriage or wherever you'd like to start. There are many short questions, ("what are some things that make you feel in control or competent?") but you could use them as jumping off points to longer essays. I am very sorry about what you're going through. It sounds upsetting, sad, and very very frustrating.
posted by salvia at 11:15 PM on February 25, 2016

Given your situation as a fretty, compound-sentence-and-footnote-writing perfectionist still reeling from an emotional gutpunch, I think you should steer clear of Mayer, Goldberg and the like, even The Artist's Way. There's good stuff in all of them, but I doubt they're what you need right now.

Instead, try Lynda Barry's What It Is.
posted by tangerine at 12:05 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks everyone. I feel overwhelmed (in a good way!) and oddly relieved. Many great suggestions here to help me on my way. And, bananacabana, I may just take you up on your offer one day! ;)
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 3:10 AM on February 26, 2016

Robert Boice's advice on writing fluently has also been really helpful to me, and it might be helpful for you as well.
posted by ourobouros at 5:15 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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