Chopping Away at the Writer’s Block and the ADHD

Image of a dictionary entry for "focus."
©Beret Olsen 2022

I don’t know what frustrates me more about writing—struggling to start or struggling to finish. Maybe it’s all that floundering in the murky middle.

I’ve been proofreading a book about teaching middle and high school students to write. The advice therein for students with writer’s block provides little solace and no end of entertainment for me. That said, here I am typing away. At last! A topic! It took me twenty-eight minutes to get creaking along on this trajectory after three false starts in completely different directions: one about missing my kids, one about lies I’ve told them, and one about the sound of snowfall. Each of those ideas petered out before I had two complete sentences.

Now look: I am actually writing about not being able to write. (stops. has a few swigs of coffee and readjusts the seating situation.) (Googles genetic splicing for a story that refuses to be finished, then watches a fascinating YouTube video about CRISPR.) (sits and stares at screen. has more coffee.)

One suggestion for writer’s block is to use a thesaurus. Has the author tried this? (types several unfriendly comments about this advice. erases them.) (sits and swigs coffee.) (recalls a sixth grade writing assignment, for which the thesaurus was a major crutch. shudders at the misguided use of the word “prestidigitator” and so many other poor choices. remembers the severe scolding received in the margins.)

Perhaps the problem is that I am looking for ideas about character motivation—or an actual plot—not for words. I love words. I can think about words all day. Case in point: crestfallen. Is that not the most poetic term? (looks it up.) I have always assumed that it simply meant disappointed, but turns out it includes an element of shame. News to me. (looks around in the Os with no purpose. just likes Os.) There’s odoriferous, which not only is a delight to say aloud, but also can be used to mean morally offensive. That could come in handy. (thinks about people and things that would like to call odoriferous.)

I’m old school, so in addition to online resources, I have the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s next to me at all times. We are good friends. Merriam often opens to the page with “chowderhead” at the top left, just to bait me. True. This has happened at least twenty-five times. She reminds me that there is such a thing as “couch grass” and “funk hole;” that cats can be “fubsy.” We laugh a lot about these sorts of things. Imagine if someone like me also had a thesaurus sitting by my side. I would never get around to writing!

(sips lukewarm coffee. stares at screen.) (looks at meme about pronouncing certain words as if they were the names of Greek heroes: Articles. Tentacles. Barnacles.)

But the one suggestion on the list that I keep coming back to is this: Lower your expectations.

I’m still digesting that one.

That advice is so terrible, it is genius. So wrong and so right at the same time.

My expectation, unfortunately, is that I will not finish this.

Image of the index notches on the side of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.
©Beret Olsen 2022

Things I’m Not Writing About

Just like on the previous fourteen days, I have been flailing around for a writing idea again today. As an added incentive, I told myself I couldn’t eat lunch until I post, which means I am getting ridiculously hungry and increasingly desperate.

So I have turned to a list of suggested writing prompts for assistance. Here’s sampling:

“Do you enjoy growing old or do you fight against it?”

No. I do not want to write about that. Does anyone? Perhaps yogis or saints.

Next up, “If you could permanently get rid of one worry, which one would it be?” You know what? Cataloguing and weighing each worry–starting with growing old, of course–has set off a mild anxiety attack. Thanks a lot, people.

Though it didn’t spawn ideas, this one did cheer me out of my funk: “You’re a Nigerian prince with millions in the bank but you can’t access it without an American co-signer. To your surprise and disappointment, nobody will help you transfer the money.”

Most promising at first read: “What is the one appliance that you can’t live without?” Easy: the toaster. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add to that besides the fact that toast is the most fabulous, most perfect food in the universe, unless you have run out of butter, and then…why bother?

Sadly, in the midst of my search, guess what appeared on the right side of my screen?

Dang. This felt personal.

Hm. Must be time to put this post out of its misery. Kudos to you for slogging through it. Any suggestions for getting unstuck are indeed welcome.

Black Hole

From NASA's
From NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

I am staring at the page wondering: where are all of my ideas?

Over the weekend, I spent an embarrassing number of hours dragging a short story out of my “creative well.”

I had to beat it into a recognizable shape, and stretch it to meet guidelines and parameters. It was neither a graceful process, nor a painless one.

The story is not horrible; with a little fine-tuning I might like it.

What’s horrible is the black hole left behind–the fear that it was the very last idea I will hatch.

Fortunately, I can always write about writer’s block.

My Sincere Gratitude + (special bonus!) My Dribble Cup of Fear

@a long, long time ago   Beret Olsen
@2003   Beret Olsen

I have no idea how it happened.

Somehow a lovely story wrangler named Michelle stumbled across my essay about sleeping in the hallway.

I find myself wondering: what are the odds? And I marvel a little at the sheer luck of it. I must have posted my essay on the right day, at the right time, on a topic she found interesting. I must have put just the right tags on it.

But what has been truly astonishing was that all of a sudden a whole community of writers appeared, and I realized that we are not on our own out here in cyberspace at all. I feel immense gratitude that you have taken the time to read my words and relate them to your own lives, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading your work as well.

Thank you.

Unfortunately, the inevitable has happened: I got stage fright. I am TERRIFIED to write anything at all.  I’m not typing away in a room by myself anymore, because now I know I am not alone. Someone might see if I have a crap day or make a poor word choice. Someone might judge my grammar errors as harshly as I would theirs. Mostly kidding.

Perhaps most paralyzing of all is the thought that I might not be able to write something worthwhile again before you all lose interest and wander off. Shoot, what if I never write something I like as well again?

Fortunately, someone showed me this quote from John Steinbeck when he was beginning to write The Grapes of Wrath:

“I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now,” he said. “That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages—ten of you—you are the dribble cup—you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. I have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.”

I include this quote not because I am putting myself in his league, but because fear and writing seem to go hand in hand for many of us, no matter who we are, or what we have previously accomplished. But THAT IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO STOP. Imagine if Steinbeck had caved to his self-doubt and neglected to finish his novel. What a loss.

Thankfully, we don’t have to write The Grapes; that’s already been done. But we DO have something to say and a remarkably friendly forum in which to say it.

Well, it looks like I just wrote a whole post about not being able to write a post. Hope that is out of my system, now; that I can ‘burn these pages’ and move on to other topics. Come to think of it, you might be hoping the same thing. Now go write something awesome.

Why I drive like Mr. Magoo, and how that might help me finish my book before I’m dead

**An apology to those of you who accidentally got this yesterday. I guess I blog a little like Mr. Magoo, too.

I was recently explaining to a friend why I have trouble getting much writing done.

I described the runway approach I use to build momentum: collecting my thoughts…exercising to clear my head…I need a full stomach, a glass of water, and my phone nearby, set to vibrate. I like my work area to be clean and organized. In fact, it’s best if the whole house is clean and organized, the bills paid, meal planning done, and groceries in the fridge, so there’s no lingering ‘to do’ list hanging over my head.

I wish I were exaggerating.

I need a writing soundtrack. Headphones are best, with familiar music rambling like an old friend inside my head. I like to drift in and out of a song without it snagging my attention.

Once I actually sit down and face the computer, I usually need to write a healthy chunk of crap before I can access the good stuff. Then, after the initial spew, I need about three or four solid hours of uninterrupted time to make any measurable progress.

As I was describing this process, it suddenly struck me how absurd it all was. Sure, who wouldn’t write best under those circumstances? The problem is that they occur simultaneously maybe once a year; the remainder of the time, I just wish I were seriously writing. I might squeeze out a blog post now and then, but when is The Book going to happen?

Here’s my revelation:  I simply can’t wait for the stars to align to produce the perfect writing conditions; if I do, I won’t finish my book until long after I’m dead.

I need to write now, regardless of the circumstances (or, for that matter, the litany of mental obstacles listed previously).

And I’ll bet it’s possible.

After all, I drive best when I’m well-rested, well-fed, and alone in the car, listening to my favorite music. But, I don’t wait to go places until I meet all of the aforementioned conditions. If I need to be somewhere, I go. If I need to get my loved ones around, I do. I take small people to school and to the doctor and the dentist. I fill up with gas and get a few things for dinner. Maybe I parked in the sun so I have to hold the steering wheel with some slightly used tissues I found under the seat. Maybe the playdate gets carsick and I can’t find a plastic bag. No matter. If I need to drive, I drive. Never mind that I have to crank Today’s Hits in order for my two lovely children to refrain from bickering or throwing something at the driver. Shoot, I even have to drive when there is bickering and throwing. I have to drive when people are crying or asking questions like ‘what is god?’ I have to drive when I’m in a bad mood, when I’m sick, and when I’ve been so busy that I’ve forgotten to eat a meal or two. When I need to be somewhere, I go–no matter what is happening in and around me. It might not be graceful. I might careen a bit like Mr. Magoo, but I can get there.

IT’S THE SAME WITH WRITING OR MAKING ART OR PARENTING OR HAVING IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS OR ANYTHING AT ALL. If we wait for the perfect set of circumstances, we will miss our opportunity completely. End of story.

Looking for the Cure

It’s pretty sad that I am already experiencing writer’s block a mere 3 days into the Post-a-Day Challenge.  Luckily, I happened upon this nugget of wisdom as I was fishing for inspiration on other folks’ blogs:  “Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.  Just write poorly.  Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better.” -Seth Godin

While Godin does have a point, I’m not completely convinced it’s necessary to write poorly in public–and I have a hunch that my readers might have some reservations as well.  Consequently, I will take this moment to write a bunch of crap in my little notebook instead.  You’re welcome.