Getting Unstuck in Your Writing (Or, POV Is a Bastard)

Getting Unstuck in Your Writing (Or, POV Is a Bastard)

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Recently I was working on a guest post about POV…and it was not going well.

Point of view, as the subtitle above indicates, is one slippery little sucker, and the topic just seemed overwhelming. How could I possibly condense anything useful about it into a 1,200-word post? Every time I broke it down into a more manageable subtopic, out popped another Hydra head somewhere else.

I took three cracks at writing it, all of them meandering and unusable. I realized I clearly know nothing about point of view or anything at all about writing, really. I wondered why on earth I had represented myself as someone who did.

I was spiraling.

Does any of this sound familiar? I write a lot about feeling overwhelmed in your writing, feeling blocked, feeling like an impostor—sometimes even from one day to the next, and in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. (I have thirty years’ experience in editing and, as my husband reminded me, “You literally wrote the book about it”—or at least a book. I’m not writing hypothetically—I know firsthand what those demons feel like.)

So rather than spiraling deeper into self-doubt and paralysis, I reached for the tools I know are effective.

  1. Step away from the problem.

The first step is to stop the automatic thoughts from continuing to feed on themselves. No matter how great the temptation to “think your way out of it,” once you’re in the spiral you can’t. You have to get some space—some mental peace and some objective distance. Or as I like to say, when you’re out of ammunition, you get out of the foxhole.

I threw on a jacket and went hiking in the greenbelt alone, breathing the air, focusing on my steps on the uneven ground, drinking in the lovely trees and the creek and the rock formations. I watched The Great British Baking Show with my husband. We walked the dogs and made dinner.

I did not let myself keep puzzling out the article—and did not allow myself to berate myself. At all. Not one morsel. Beating ourselves up for “letting ourselves down” only exacerbates the block. Would you treat a friend having writing problems that way?

  • Reexamine your intentions.

Like clockwork, when I get blocked it’s almost always one of several familiar core reasons: I’m comparing myself to others (“Will it be good enough?”), I’m expecting myself to be perfect (“This has to be the end-all post on POV”), or I will be revealed as a fraud (“It will be clear how little I actually know about this”).

Years of self-reflection and therapy, friends, have uncovered these familiar little demons, and I’m a big fan of anything that helps you know yourself better—because while we’ll probably never banish those demons completely, it gives you the resources to identify them and keep them from overrunning your psyche.

So I asked myself why this post mattered to me—why sharing any of my thoughts on craft does, why do I write at all? (For more on this see this post.) And the answer is always the same: I love sharing useful tools I’ve gleaned from my years as an editor to help authors bring their vision to the page. I love breaking down and simplifying what can often feel like confusing or overwhelming topics.

I realized I was focusing on the effect of my article, but reminding myself of what drives me shifts focus to my intentions: How could I convey this topic in a way that made it clear and easily understandable? And that puts me right back in touch with my purpose and my rational mind (not the irrational one overcome with doubts): This is information I have and want to share.

And I didn’t have to offer the ultimate compendium of POV—just share my insights in the hopes that it might be useful to other authors. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what else has been written about the subject, or how well or comprehensively. My take is my take, and others may resonate with it and find it helpful too. As I heard a motivational speaker say once, I don’t have to help everyone; I’d just like to hopefully help someone. It takes the pressure off.

  • Come back to the work.

All of that reframing is good for our psyches—but we also want it to have practical applications: to get us unstuck. So just like you have to get right back on when you tumble off the horse, you have to sit back down at the keyboard once you’ve identified and tamed your personal little demons. (I literally picture mine as the Underwood ham demons because I think they’re kind of cute and it lets me love them a little and not take them too seriously—I mean, look at this tiny little demon acting up! Go back to your cave, silly demon…it’s not your time right now.)

We don’t need to “conquer” or “banish” or do any other violence to our demons–they are part of us, with us forever, and trying to suppress them just makes them act up worse, like a wayward child. But we can reframe them and learn to peacefully coexist with them–after all, they originally came into being to try to protect us from whatever threat they perceived, like feeling not good enough. They just don’t have the emotional maturity to understand that their reactions are maladaptations to those threats, like a frustrated child who hurts others because they are hurt.

But just as you wouldn’t expect that child to know how to process her emotions in a healthier way without your guidance and love, I’ve learned to affectionately let my demons know I hear them and I appreciate their concerns, but that I’ve got it under control and they can relax.

It sounds ridiculous…but it works.

The next morning I sat down to write with a fresh perspective and a clearer idea what I wanted to say in the rest of the article. Full disclosure, my next draft also sucked pretty badly. But this time I didn’t spiral—I chucked it yet again, and focused more strongly on what sliver of point of view I wanted to try to clarify for authors.

And finally that little bastard fell into line. You can read the final post here—on Jane Friedman’s site I was pretty happy with it…and I actually enjoyed writing it.

And ultimately, shouldn’t that be what matters most in our writing?

(Photo courtesy of Steve Harvey on Unsplash.)

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