2020 has been, I don’t need to tell anyone, a weird year. There have been days when moving from the bed to the couch has seemed a herculean feat, days when the effort of pouring a bowl of soup from a can has been similar to the work put in to make a five-course gourmet meal. There have also been days when things have gone swimmingly—exercise, cleaning, work, play, all sorts of productivity in a single 24-hour period, with minimal doomscrolling in between. It was in anticipatory hope of a strong of days like that which made me decide to sign up for NaNoWriMo once more.
I’m currently volunteering at the wonderful Melbourne Writers Festival, and one of the perks is a number of comp tickets that I can use to attend sessions outside of my volunteer shifts, and so on Saturday afternoon Erika and I met up at the State Library Victoria to see two panels. The first, When We Talk About Motherhood, was so incredibly, beautifully, terrifyingly powerful that I am still coalescing my thoughts about it, so instead I’ll talk about the second: Journalism: Heartbreak and Resolve.
Moderated by Crikey’s Bhakthi Puvanenthiran and featuring Erik Jensen from The Saturday Paper, Jack Latimore of NITV News and The Guardian, and freelance journalist Ginger Gorman, the discussion hinged on the mental hardships that journalists both encounter and face themselves, as well as the drive to keep going and the hopeful moments that uplift and empower them as well as their readers.
It was a fascinating look both at the industry today and the people in it, especially of the perspective of those who are working to expand and better it with their work and with their support of and amplification of marginalized voices (as writers and subjects), but it was especially interesting to me as I realised with a hint of amusement that it was exactly ten years ago last week that I began studying for my journalism degree at Ithaca College.
I was further amused when I thought about what these working journalists were saying the journalism world (a world I quickly decided at university that I wasn’t actually interested in being a part of) is like these days, and how far off most of my professors’s predictions had been about where the field was heading. This isn’t to say they got it all wrong, of course. They obviously knew that social media would play a large role in the future of the news (although just how large they couldn’t have predicted; one of the panelists mentioned how Instagram is becoming a popular platform for news media, a platform which didn’t even exist during my freshman year and wouldn’t introduce “Instagram Stories” until well after I graduated). And this isn’t to say they should’ve known better, not when new media has changed so rapidly and intensely over the last decade.
But one thing I distinctly remember about my journalism studies was a feeling of… if not pessimism, than resignation. That social media would make us short-attention-spanned and rapidly-reading, that we’d be cutting down our stories to snippets and soundbites. And sure, that’s happened, just like the ubiquity and accessibility of new media and social media has allowed for members of the worst factions of society to pretend their bigoted conspiracy theories are thoughtful, legitimate journalism but has also provided a space for marginalized voices of all sorts to share stories of and from their communities. And for every snapchat broadcast story and 140-character tweet, there’s a riveting 10,000 word longform article that would’ve never gone into print (at least without major cuts) in a traditional publication.
One thing that the journalists on the panel emphasized was that we as readers want to read. We want news. We want thoughtfulness and integrity and truth and rich, multicultural perspectives. Although I am not and probably never will be a journalist, I love journalism and many of my friends work in the media in some form, and I’m always pleased to have the reminder that what they do is appreciated. To look at the journalists on the panel, some saying that there were times that they wanted to quit but didn’t and others saying their worst moments only gave them more determination, to look at the people I know doing great work in new and old media, to look back a decade to when I was a bright-eyed wannabe newspaperwoman without a trace of anger or cynicism… it makes me excited to see what comes next.
Nobody is self-deprecating like a writer. Partially it’s because we trade in words and so we’re good using those words to gently mock ourselves, partially it’s because it’s so easy to feel impostor syndrome when we’re infinitely connected via social media with other people publishing short stories and blogs and novels and journalism and fantastic work around the globe, mostly it’s because when we’re staring at a blank notebook or Scriviner page or Word document with nothing but the lyrics to Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ in our heads it’s easier to laugh than to cry.
I’ve written before about my experiences with creative burnout, but it’s not just burnout that sometimes makes it feel like putting a few words on a page is an insurmountable challenge. Sometimes it’s just good old writer’s block. We’ve all felt it. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably felt it staring down a deadline for an essay in high school or college. Or you’ve felt the equivalent—photographer’s block or knitter’s block or baker’s block (are any of these real terms? doesn’t matter)—regarding your preferred creative outlet.
So what do you do when you feel like you’re never going to write another sentence, or draw another picture or play another song? Here are some ideas:
(note: I’m directing these ideas toward writers, but of course they can be adapted for any creative pursuit)
Take a walk.
I’ve come to realise that my creative drive is directly proportional with how much time I spend in nature. One thing I don’t love about living in Melbourne is that it’s much more difficult to get away from the city; it’s large and spread out and the parks are manicured and obviously man-made. Still, even just getting outside into one of these crafted green spaces and seeing something that isn’t streets and skyscrapers makes such a difference in how inspired I feel to write. When my imagination wanes, taking a moment to reconnect with nature kindles it again.
Steal some inspiration.
Writing exercises aren’t just for students. If your block is coming from a lack of ideas rather than a lack of words, let someone else guide you. There are countless places to find fiction and nonfiction writing prompts online, from dedicated communities on Reddit to a search for journaling prompts on Pinterest. Pick something that strikes your fancy and give it a whirl (or pick something that doesn’t and try to make it work). While realistically you probably won’t stick with it in the long-term, it’s another way to get over the writer’s block hurdle so you can work on something you really want.
Be shit at something new.
“Shitty first drafts” from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is practically a Biblical text to most writers. But nobody wants to feel like they’re not good at something important to them. Instead, try being bad at something else. If you’re a writer, grab a camera and take some shitty photographs. If you’re a photographer, paint a shitty painting. If you’re a painter, give a cake some shitty decorations. It’s easier to be okay with being bad at things that we don’t expect ourselves to be good at, and it’s still creative work that helps to get rid of the mental block.
Set the smallest goal.
In On Writing, Stephen King said that he aims to write 2,000 words a day; sometimes it takes a few hours and sometimes nearly until sunset, but by setting a daily goal it forces you to push through the writer’s block and get the words out. In a perfect world, I would write 1,000 or so words per day. Sometimes that’s just not going to happen, though, so instead I set a goal that’s a minuscule percentage of that: 10 words. Just 10. One sentence, maybe two. Generally, once you start you’re not going to stop at 10, but even if you do you’re ending the day with 10 more words than you started with, and that’s something.
We all tend to think that what we’re writing is trash while we’re writing it. It’s one of the reasons that NaNoWriMo exists, to force us to resist the urge to ruthlessly edit and cut and hack at our work whilst we’re writing until there’s nothing left. But sometimes what we’re writing is just not working. In these instances, set it aside and start something else. Pretend you’re done with that piece of crap story forever and put it in a folder named “trash”—don’t actually trash it, though. With some time away and the excitement of a new project in front of you, you’ll likely come back to that old, stagnant piece and realise it’s not half as bad as you thought.
Last year I had a job I couldn’t quit. When I left the States, my plan was to leave the job as well, but I couldn’t resist leaving the door open (the job was online so I could work from anywhere). When I got a job in Wellington, I intended to leave the other job, but I told myself that making extra money was always good and it wasn’t like I was doing much in my evenings anyway. Essentially, I had two full-time jobs for most of my year in New Zealand. When I moved to Australia, I finally sent that “Sorry, I won’t be able to do the job any longer” email… but I still left the door open for a return.
It’s not because I love the job or even the pay; it’s because I feel like if I’m not constantly working, I’m doing something wrong. Right now, I’m “funemployed” as I look for work here in Australia, but I’m keeping busy in addition to job-hunting. I ran 50km last week, I’m doing yoga every day, I’m updating my blog more regularly than I ever have, I’m reading, I’m doing most of the grocery shopping and laundry and almost all of the cooking. I’m hardly just sitting on my bum watching Say Yes to the Dress reruns (I mean, that’s what I’m doing right at this moment, but in general).
September is flying by. Two months from now, Steve and I will be leaving New Zealand and heading to Australia (visas pending… should probably get on applying for those). In the meantime, we have two trips planned (well, one planned and one planning-in-progress… can you tell I’m a bit behind on my to-do list?), heaps of people to spend time with, and a couple more items to cross off the kiwi bucket list.
The weather’s also starting to warm up (yay!) which has meant that my Septemberwrimo goal has gotten slightly off-track. Only slightly, I’m at ~24,000 words and I expect I’ll hit 27,000 at least by the time the month finishes, but I have no desire to sit inside on my laptop when it’s sunny and there are mountains to climb. But that’s not important. Even if I only write one word in a day I try to celebrate it, because it’s one more word than I had on the page before.
We all have excuses for why we don’t write. Work, kids, Netflix marathons, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve written before about how difficult I find writing for fun when I write for a living. And yet, for one glorious, stressful month a year, we put all our excuses decide, meet up with friends and strangers in coffee shops and on twitter, and try to bash out 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month.