Writing a novel is a traumatic experience. Experts agree that the process happens in five distinct stages.
1. Denial and Isolation
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life… For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
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The writer secludes herself from society. The writer tries to write. She puts words on a page. So many words, yet still too few. It’s common at this beginning stage for the writer to attempt to rationalize why she isn’t writing more. There’s just not enough time in the day or she needed to binge watch the latest Netflix show. The writer lies to herself but she cannot lie to her novel. It sits there, on the screen or typewriter, unfinished. Until one fateful day it is finished.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
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It’s garbage. The manuscript is complete garbage. The writer knows he is a hack, a wannabee, a good-for-nothing. The writer gets mad. He tantrums. He throws things. His favorite mug is broken. Now he cannot drink coffee. He shoves his manuscript through a paper shredder. The writer lashes out at friends and family for never supporting his dreams. The writer’s father tells him he should do something practical instead of writing a damn book. The writer fumes.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
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The writer painstakingly reassembles the shreds of paper. Maybe if she rewrote the beginning, middle, and end of her novel it could be good. She secretly prays to a higher authorial power to bestow her manuscript with the spark of genius that she so desperately wishes to possess. The writer makes a few edits, changes her mind, and tries to undo what has already been undone. She tries to save a chapter that she absolutely loves but hurts the story. It’s too late. It’s already gone.
Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”
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Sadness. The rejection letters piling up are longer than the manuscript itself. The writer sits at home, more alone than ever, and writes query letter after query letter. Nobody wants his novel. He mopes around the house and thinks about self-publishing. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”
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The sad aspect of this stage is that not every writer gets to this point. An editor or agent somewhere has seen a hint of potential in the manuscript. It has been accepted for publication. The writer is going to get published. The writer is at peace.
Whether you’re an aspiring writer, an avid reader, or none of the above you can’t help but admit the power and influence the written word has on us all. Writing can be cathartic, informative, distracting, devastating, connecting, and everything in-between.
I love writing and words and all the ways in which they can effect our lives so much (seriously) that I’m at a complete and total loss for them right now.
So, I’m just going to let these fifteen quotes from famous authors do the rest of the talking.
“If I waited for perfection…I would never write a word.” —Margaret Atwood
“There isno greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” —Maya Angelou
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” —Joan Didion
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”—Virginia Woolf
“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.” —Enid Bagnold
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” —Anaïs Nin
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” —Sylvia Plath
“When I’m writing I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” —Anne Sexton
“I am writing all this down in blue ink, so as to remember that all words, not just some, are written in water.” —Maggie Nelson
“In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today.” —Franz Kafka
“A person who writes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.” —Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” —William Faulkner
“Who am I? I’m just a writer. I write things down. I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure, I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow glass, but that comes later.” —Richard Siken
“Not all poetry wants to be storytelling. And not all storytelling wants to be poetry. But great storytellers and great poets share something in common: They had something to say, and did.” —Sarah Kay
“The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It’s not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work.” —Augusten Burroughs
I’ve had some pretty soul-sucking writer’s block for about a month now. I’ll sit down to write, no words will come, and eventually I’ll give up and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my couch and hate myself. This means, for about a month, a bunch of my fictional characters have been stranded in the middle of a scene. They’re stuck in an Eat N’ Park in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Their breakfast food has just arrived at their table, and they have yet to take a single bite. They’ve been starving at a table full of bacon and pancakes for over a month! Their food is cold! Their waiter’s shift is over! The poor guy never got tipped! And it’s my fault! Because I, the God of their Universe, cannot decide how they will proceed with their morning meal. That’s writer’s block. Just abandoning your characters in a diner in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, like some terrible mother in a Lifetime movie.
So when I’m stuck like this, I like to revisit stories and poems that inspire me. I reread them so often, my copies are all heavily underlined, battered, and dog-eared. I even found an old creased train ticket to Munich in one of them. Check them out, get inspired, and then please, for the love of You, go save your characters from that booth in Eat N’ Park.
You may have read this book in high school. I didn’t, but if you were lucky, you might’ve. It’s about a Latina girl, Esperanza, growing up in Chicago. Her voice is strong and witty and vibrant as she describes her life– her family, her neighborhood, her classmates– in poetic and strange ways:
Darius, who chases girls with firecrackers or a stick that touched a rat and thinks he’s tough, today pointed up because the world was full of clouds, the kind like pillows. You see that cloud, that fat one there? Darius said, See that? Where? That one next to the one that look like popcorn.That one there. See that. That’s God, Darius said. God? somebody little asked. God, he said, and made it simple.
Every chapter is short and brilliant yet simple, which is perfect if you need a quick burst of inspiration.
This is a short story collection full of myths and monsters. In fact, Karen Russell actually signed a copy of this book for me, “Enjoy this monster mash!” Russell is the queen of magical realism and gorgeous prose. In the title story, a vampire couple moves to a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy. While there, they make a strange discovery: sinking their fangs into the skins of lemons is an oddly satisfying substitution for sucking human blood.
There is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling– a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums– a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.
Every story is like this– a sort of thought experiment, launching mythical creatures into our ordinary world. If you want to take your imagination for a spin, definitely pick up a short story collection by Russell.
This is the book I apparently took to Munich. It makes sense, because it’s a pretty thin book of poems, the perfect size for traveling. But don’t let it’s size fool you– this is not a quick read. Every poem deserves to be dissected and reread and read aloud. This collection is about life and death. It’s all at once inspiring, hilarious, confusing, and just plain weird. And I love it to Munich and back. To give you and idea of the range of poems in this book, one begins, “It’s hard to imagine a day/ When I’m not scratching/ my nuts right at God.” Another proclaims, “This fevered life: illness & love/ Lockjaw & slow-motion kidnappings– it is what/ It always is– chronic dying, shivering with/ Unbelievable joy & not knowing a damn thing/ About anything as lightning/ Jigsaws the horizon.” Right? Like some days we’re scratching our nuts right at God and some days we’re shivering with unbelievable joy! We can truly have it all!
This is a graphic novel that truly made me ache the first time I read it. I ached with inexplicable nostalgia– for summer, for childhood, for old female friends I grew up with and inevitably grew apart from. This book is the perfect snapshot of growing up as an adolescent girl. It’s about two friends, Rose and Windy, who see one another every summer, all summer, at their summer homes in Awago Beach. But somehow, this summer in particular feels different. If you’re feeling stuck and looking for ideas, this book will trigger memories perfect for a memoir essay or some young adult writing.
This book is beautiful and haunting in a number of ways, but my favorite thing about it is the voice. The novel is told from the perspective of a group of teenage boys. This is called a ‘collective voice’– when no single character is ever identified as the narrator. Together, the collective voice of the boys tell the story of the Lisbon sisters– five teenage girls who live in their town and, eventually, each take their own life. It’s sad for obvious reasons, but it’s also thoughtful, darkly funny, and gorgeously written.
We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.
If you want to revamp your writing, take after Eugenides and try to write a story using collective voice.
I think this book is too good for me to describe properly. It’s sort of like two books in one, or a story within a story. So there’s the main character, Jonathan, a Jewish American man who travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. She saved him in a small town in Poland called Trachimbrod. The other story is the story of Trachimbrod itself– the people who lived there, and the strange and beautiful lives they led. Personally, the tales from Trachimbrod are the ones that fascinated and inspire me the most, for example:
The time of dyed hands began when the baker of rolls Herzog J observed that those rolls that were not watched with a cautious eye would sometimes disappear… At this point in our history, the Eminent Rabbi Fagel F was chief executor of legal regulation. So as to conduct a fair investigation, he saw to it that everyone in the shtetl was treated like a suspect, guilty until proven otherwise. WE WILL DYE THE HANDS OF EACH CITIZEN WITH A DIFFERENT COLOR, he said, AND WILL THIS WAY DISCOVER WHO HAS BEEN PUTTING THEIRS BEHIND HERZOG’S COUNTER.
Honestly, no concise quote could really capture how good this book is.
Okay, I’m super biased because Holmes was my writing professor at Penn State and I’m obsessed with her. She’s the author of this beautiful collection called The Grass Labyrinthand she’s just a lovely, inspiring human being in general. Her essay, ‘On Not Writing,’ is about the weird awfulness of writer’s block, and how, no matter how permanent it feels, it always evaporates with time.
But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull.