Writers: How to Avoid Stagnation

    A Guest Post by Meredith Resnick of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey

    When my kids were in middle school they got a lot of make-work for homework and classwork, stuff that kept them very busy but that steered them away from real creativity and by proxy, real learning.  This make-work gave the illusion that students were busy and oh so productive. Wrong. What they were really doing was chasing their tail—in other words: stagnating.

    Being busy, compulsively busy even with journaling and writing and revising does not always spell productivity. As far as I’m concerned it’s a form of stagnation which is worse than writer’s block. Why? Because you have the illusion that you’re being productive—just like my kids with all that make-work in middle school.

    This is my story about how to avoid stagnation. Actually, it is a post about growth.

    I love getting a piece of writing to work. And by work I mean flow—which actually implies that I’ve stepped back and let the words—the work—happen. My fear, on the other hand, would like to take credit for working a piece to death and, in the process, grinding my creativity to pieces. It’s true. I try not to let my fear do my writing for me anymore. Sometimes I succumb. It’s usually the result of comparing my work to someone else’s. I would have hoped to have grown out of that by now but, oh well. If I share my experience with you it will help me, too. So, here goes:

    My cautionary tale

    I was the kind of writer that went out and found the right words. Really dug for them. I could spend hours researching a term. There is a place for this type of finishing-touch treatment and—lo and behold—it comes somewhere in the final stages of editing. In other words, it happens best, for me anyway, at the end, after the bulk of writing (story finding) is complete.

    If I go out and dig for words too quickly, or scour my brain or dictionary for the perfect metaphor before I’ve found the real story I’m writing, I go insane (and eat too much candy). Once I’m in the insane place I keep trying this approach. Over and over. The insanity comes, not only in the seeking of the perfect words but after I’ve stepped back and realized the words I’ve chosen don’t fit or mean anything to me. If you’ve ever gone on a binge of any kind, you know what I mean.

    The holding-on problem

    But because I worked so hard and dug so deep for a string (gossamer) of beautiful (pulchritudinous) words, I’m likely to not want to let go of them—ever. I start trying to find ways to keep a certain sentence, to mold the story around a turn of phrase. I often fall into the trap of overdoing the flow part.

    Well, yeah.

    That’s the flip side.

    It’s what happens if every writing session is about letting my mind and pen just go wherever they want, all my work turns into a disjointed slew that requires hours of dissection. So instead of finding the perfect words out there in the dictionary, I’m on a treasure hunt across 10 new journals I’ve penned. I may look busy. But I’m spinning (in place).

    Same stagnation, different disguise.

    Granted, I’ll unearth a few gems waiting to be polished (or maybe they come ready to use). But the time I spend untangling the jungle of roots (beginning of ideas) instead of growing those ideas is more stagnation. I waste more time and energy trying to surgically extract the phrases that work from the stuff surrounding it. I get bogged down, pent up and tired. The joy of sitting down to accomplish turns into make-work that keeps me from moving forward. For a writer, this is stagnation.

    So what to do? Here’s what I do:

    Be nice (to myself). Understand that when I sit down to write I’m treading two paths: I’m simultaneously finding the story and relaying the story with language that moves the story along. In the beginning and middle, I keep my eyes on the finding the story, not on finding the words.

    Listen (to myself). I resist the urge to be seduced by teachers and books and workshops and websites that tell me to focus too soon on technique. (My ego likes those.) Instead, I pay attention to teachers who say simple things like: “Keep going.”

    Trust the process. I don’t get bogged down in “the language” and “the turn of phrase” and “the big brush strokes” and any number of other writer catch phrases I may have heard or read about. That comes later. And later always comes as long as I dedicate myself to the process in the correct order: Write first, edit (word find, cut, revise, finesse) second.

    Remember. Understand that I do have a story to tell. As do we all.

    Meredith Resnick’s personal essays have been published in Newsweek, Los Angeles TImes, PsychologyToday.com, JAMA, Culinate, Santa Monica Review and many more. Visit her at The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, a finalist in the 10 Top Blogs for Writers Contest 2011/12, Meredith is mesmerized by all facets of the creative process.

    About the author

      Meredith Resnick

    • Khaalidah says:

      I saw myself in this article. Not only did I see myself but I felt the angst. I often have weeks where I can’t look at the story anymore…its too painful because I thought I knew where it was leading and then realized I pretty much forgot as I got all caught up int he word or phrase. I’m learning to let it out and let it go.

      • Keep going…keep going. This has happened to me, too – and the only way out of it is…through it. This is what I’ve found to be the case for me. I hope it helps you!

    • IIT 2012 says:

      Great post! Bullets serve so many useful purposes for writers. Not only do they condense information in meaningful ways.

    • This is an excellent post and I really enjoyed reading it! We all really do have stories to tell and it’s important that we allow ourselves to tell those stories without getting in our own ways. Thanks for this!

    • J. R. Nova says:

      I keep away from stagnation simply by having a lot on my plate. I never let myself stay on one thing for two long, but routinely change things up. Keep the water boiling. If i get bored of one thing I always have something else to fall back on.

      At the same time, though, I’m always guarding against having TOO much on my plate. Getting stretched too thin is just as bad, if not worse.

      Great post, Meredith!

      • Thank you! There is something to be said about a full plate, indeed. I find the full plate works best for me when I am truly/fully interested/engaged in each project I’m working on.

    • Meredith, what a great story. I can relate to scouring and getting caught up in a detail, losing the flow. Getting caught in the perfectionism at the beginning steers me right into the circling the drain feeling. And, then I don’t like to waste time, so I pound away.

      Knowing this about myself, I know I can only create with space and inspiration. If I’m tired or trying to edit to soon, I need to put off writing until the juices are begging to be poured out.

      • Thanks, Marci. It is definitely a cycle, isn’t it? It is so helpful to know this about ourselves, so we don’t have to get caught up (or at least catch ourselves if we do!).

    • To be able to write in more than one language would be, for me, one of the greatest opportunities/gifts/processes ever. I hope you do it…even if you feel the sentences are too long (or short!). Good luck!

    • I have a bad habit of writing long sentences, even as I fully realize the benefits of short sentences.
      I have not hesitated to write, in spite of this limitation, my professional notes, memos,lettersand tarining matrials till now and some extempore articlesof late.

      I have commenced trying out my hand at writing in Gujararti, my native language, with the same limiations and same aim to improve .

      This article has proferred me good tips and motivation to not stanate in this pursuit.

      Great article…

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you for your post. It comes at a time when I needed to read another author’s struggle and ways they overcame. I’m currently working on a project i LOVE, but I find that I’m forcing a lot of words. Rather than letting the story flow, I’m making it sit still while I do my “busy” work. Stagnation. And, like you pointed out, too much candy. 🙂

      Thanks for the great post,

      Author of Concilium, available July 2012
      Concilium: The Departure, November 2012
      PODs, available June 2013

    • PJ Reece says:

      Easier said than done, Meredith–forestalling all that fine-tuning. But I agree, it’s important to keep moving ahead. I’ve been fighting against the perfect first draft for years. That personal fight has actually become one of writing’s pleasures, because when I push through that impulse to perfect, I get a rush from the forward motion. Onward!

    • rafliblog says:

      I think search for the perfect word whe we are writing is important, but as you said, perhaps we should little to ignore them. We must focus our story. If we finished, I think we may revision our result.

      In fact, we are writing not typing..

    • I think you search for the perfect word when you polish your work, when you go back and see that something is trite or that a different word would display your idea better. But as the work is being born, I think you write it down, don’t hesitate and rely on the muse to get the ideas on the page.

    • Great post! Bullets serve so many useful purposes for writers. Not only do they condense information in meaningful ways.

    • Kyla says:

      One of my biggest problems in writing has been the imperfection of the words I use to convey my stories.The English language is an imperfect medium, and I hate it even while I adore it.

      But I can’t say I’ve ever let the search for the perfect words bog me down. Other than maybe when I was a very young girl. When I was 5 years old and wrote my first short story, I read it over and gnashed my teeth at the way the words came out. It didn’t flow right! Not like the stories in the books I loved did. And so I threw my writing out the window for many years after that.

      When I got older, and more experienced in words and their uses, I began writing again. This time the words flowed-but not as well as I wanted them to! It frustrated me, and made me quit writing stories mid-way through their plot to pursue another story, and another, and another.

      Finally, I became fed up with the never-ending cycle of beginning new story, scrapping it, and starting another new story, and stopped writing altogether for one year. Though I still wanted to write, and even felt the itch for it on a regular basis, I was determined to wait for an idea that I felt sure I could stick with until the bitter end.

      And then it happened. I had this great idea, one that grabbed my imagination and took off. I haven’t let it go in the year and a half since, and I’m determined not to move on until it’s finished this time.

      That’s my experience with stagnation, though a bit different than your own. My search isn’t for the perfect words to convey my story (though I wish I could find them). My search is for the perfect story to be told. And, in searching for that story, I worked my guts out, learned a lot, but was really just spinning my wheels in the mud. I finally think I’m getting somewhere nowadays. But I think that might be because my storytelling ability, always too strong for my own good, has finally caught up with my wordsmithing ability. I don’t come away frustrated every time I try to convey my thoughts on paper anymore and that’s a blessing I can’t discount in my continued diligence in writing.

      Anyway, great article! I loved reading about your own problems in writing, and hope you don’t mind that I shared my own. Have a great day, and happy writing!

      • Kyla…What a gift to be gifted with the … gift of storytelling, and that you recognize what you need to do to bring that story of yours to life. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, and for the kind words…I hope they help you in your process.

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