You’ve written your heart out because you know you have a story to tell and you’re the only one to tell it—a story, a novel, a narrative, a memoir, an article, an essay, a letter. And then suddenly you stop.
At first, it’s not quite clear that you’re in deep trouble. This happens all the time to a writer. Hills and valleys, rushes and pauses just like always.
You’re just taking a breather. But you slump in your chair.
Then you get out of your chair, your room, your house. Make another pot of coffee, let the dog out, answer the phone, read a few emails. You think you’ll answer just one. Or two of the most urgent ones (Right now they’re all urgent). Then back to the keyboard. You start a sentence, and it suddenly goes off a cliff. You watch it crash and burn.
You’re into your first rough draft or your second or third, and suddenly, inexplicably, or perhaps predictably, you’ve just stopped. You get up the next day, determined to rise from the ashes of your own faltering self and begin again. But where exactly is that?
For the life of you, writer that you are, you cannot figure out how to go forward. You look back and it’s all a mess. It was never a good idea to begin with.
Despair descends like the proverbial brooding clouds. Suddenly your shoulders feel weighted, you find it hard to swallow, your eyes swim with tears. Your heart is thrumming. Your life is over (your writing life is over). There will never be another word from you, so why are you just sitting there?
Or maybe it’s not as dramatic as all that. Maybe you just don’t show up for your next writing time. There is always something else to do. And then the next time becomes the next and the next and then you can’t imagine you ever lived a writer’s life. You put your head down. You say “help.”
Then healing of your despairing writer’s soul begins.
You start by havening. This is a self-soothing technique that calms the amygdala inside your head and tells you that all is well. You slide one palm over the other and back again. You shut your eyes. You stroke your arms from shoulder to elbow, then your face. You think of a wonderful thing you wrote.
Then you move. You put on some jazzy music and move your body through the rhythm and beat of it. Oh, maybe five minutes or so. Shake, rattle and roll with it. You release all that trapped energy of despair and make room for a new thing.
Now you go from inside, where all those accumulated demons have taken hold, to outside. And focus intensely on what is outside the self by immersion into the five senses.
It’s really helpful to have a kind of first-aid kit, if you will, so find a nice little box and put these things in it.
Or you can just focus on the five senses, one at a time, with the things that are at hand.
Either way, you want full concentration on the sensations before you.
Here’s what’s inside my writerly first-aid kit:
5 things to hold up to the light:
Amethyst crystal (protection, intuition, spirituality)
Citrine crystal (creative process, happiness, light)
Lepidolite crystal (healing, calming)
Norwegian glacier stone (eternity)
White crystal (enlightenment, guidance)
5 things to touch
Irish worry stone
Shiny blue polished glass. The words: To Life.
Clear, smooth crystal
Smooth Pale opaque blue stone. The word: Imagine
5 things to hear (from soft to loud)
Bells on a string
Baby wind chimes
5 things to smell
Bookstore candle. Light it. It really does smell like a bookstore.
5 things to taste
The sensory world has opened to everything. You are calm. You are not so much waiting, as ready. You can feel anticipation down to your fingertips. They yearn to touch the keys.
What you do now is embrace the arbitrary. Then make it inevitable. Get out of your logical, left-brain mind—it needs to be silent right now—and enter the right-brain: the intuitive, spontaneous side of you, and try these five things: You’re just playing around when no one’s looking. You don’t have to keep any of them.
1. Introduce an event that, on the face of it, has little to do with what you are writing.
That is, make something improbable and unexpected happen.
If you can’t think of anything, look at the props in the setting of the narrative you’re writing, or your life—your room, your house, your office.
Something falls over, crashes, catches fire, slams shut, turns on, rings, pounds. Somebody screams, sighs, whimpers. Laughs. Why are they doing that? No matter, just describe them doing it. The phone rings. My God. What is the worst, the best it can be?
Describe what can’t possibly happen, what shouldn’t happen, what positively won’t happen. Put these in a list. Surprise yourself with the outrageousness of it all. Ask yourself, but what if it did?
2. Introduce a new, totally unexpected character.
Out of your dreams, back from the dead, out of the newspaper’s front pages. The mail arrives. It’s a letter you are afraid to open. The doorbell rings. Who is it? Somebody dead? A Celebrity? Who is the last person imaginable to walk on the set of the narrative of your life, your story? Someone you dread? Love? Fear?
S/he’s already here. At the lawn, now at the door, the living room, the kitchen, yikes! into the bedroom. It’s your state senator, the mini-mart owner with buck teeth and a neck rash, Elvis Presley, Donald Trump, Oprah with a Sweepstakes check, the dead uncle with breath like stale radishes. He’s carrying an envelope. He shoves it at you.
3. Jump: If you can’t get from A to B, then jump to C or maybe V or Z.
Jump in time, jump in space. See where you land. Breathe it in. There is some reason you’re here and not back there where you were lost and despairing.
Try to imagine how this place or point in time is connected to the point in the narrative that had you stopped. It may be the heart of the story, only you don’t know it yet. It may be something you need to know more about but didn’t recognize until now. You look down this rabbit hole. You jump.
Free-write for a minute or two about what you see.
4. Begin your narrative in a new place.
Begin just before the end, then look back. Begin in the middle and flash forward. Begin just before everything falls apart.
5. Look at the ending, either one you’ve written or one you imagine.
Write three new opening lines that echo the ending, without repeating it.
Read a poem. Underline three intriguing words. Write three opening sentences, each with one of those words in it.
Take a deep, cleansing breath that travels from head to toe. You’re back! Anything will do. Just a single, revelatory word will be all you need. Then just say “thank you.”
Ann Putnam is an internationally known Hemingway scholar who has made more than six trips to Cuba as part of the Ernest Hemingway International Colloquium. Her forthcoming novel, Cuban Quartermoon (June 2022), came, in part, from those trips, as well as a residency at Hedgebrook Writer’s Colony. She has published the memoir Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye (University of Iowa Press) and short stories in Nine by Three: Stories (Collins Press), among others. She holds a PhD from the University of Washington and has taught creative writing, gender studies, and American literature for many years. She has bred Alaskan Malamutes, which appear prominently in I Will Leave You Never. She currently lives in Gig Harbor, Washington.
You can find her on her website or follow her on Instagram and Facebook.