Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

The fabled, non-existent, writer’s block, which I had recently

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I don’t know if I mentioned it but I was recently on a programme designed to teach writers how to become published authors. It included masterclasses, guest speakers, tutorials, and, the pièce de résistance, the chance to submit a book proposal.

A nonfiction book proposal requires a synopsis of the proposed book; a chapter by chapter summary; and sample chapters (which amount to around 10,000 words).

I duly wrote a synopsis; and I worked up a contents list, with summaries of every chapter of my proposed book. Then, it came to write the sample chapters. Here, I discovered a problem. I found it extremely difficult to begin. This was, actually, quite unlike my experience.

Writer’s Block

It may be romanticised in Hollywood movies about writers, and the fabled imaginings of amateur writers, who may warmly picture a glamorous scenario where one has the privilege of being blocked, but, in my experience, most professional writers scoff at the idea of writer’s block.

However, however.

Lately, after writing several thousand words for a writing competition in November and December; plus writing a couple of short stories for a few other competitions in January; plus being involved with this publishing scheme in February and March (for which I am, of course, very grateful) which took a lot of concentration; plus digging deep to put together a decently written proposal.

PLUS the enervating, all-consuming, life-sucking, hope-sieving effects of lockdown and endless Coronavirus news, I felt my well had run dry.

A well

Let’s talk about the well. In my experience, there is a well — a place in my subconscious which stores creative energy. And I have a pretty good sense of when this well is full, and when this well is dry.

This well can be replenished by a holiday – one, ideally, with plenty of sunshine, swimming, ice cream, frolicking. But a holiday of this kind is unavailable.

Furthermore, I had done so much writing, and thinking, and being absorbed by the psychic drama of enduring a pandemic (like everyone else), I felt like my well was not only dry but also no longer existent. That is, it had been dismantled. I guess if anyone is going to experience writer’s block, it’s going to be during a once-in-a-generation global event.

How do I usually begin writing something?

Many writers talk about the tyranny of the blank page, and I feel sympathy for that. But in my experience, I have not often found it especially difficult to begin. (The middle and the end are different things altogether.) But openings have been fairly forthcoming for me. What I tend to do is think about the opening sentence, and the one after that, for a decent amount of time. I write in my head, listening to instinct. Once my head has written a sentence that seems pretty good, I then commit it to paper (or MS Word). If it looks pretty decent, then that’s the beginning. And, usually, once I have the opening sentence written, then everything else usually comes much more easily. Everything flows from the beginning. So I tend to use a lot of psychic energy (that is, mental focus) on rehearsing the opening sentences.

But for the opening of my first chapter for one of the sample chapters of my proposed book, I was finding it extremely difficult to write a beginning. This first sentence would set the tone, atmosphere, and pace, for the first few pages of my book – and these pages are extremely important for any book. So, those were the stakes.

How did I get over my writer’s block?

I exercised, I read for pleasure (as opposed for research purposes), diving into a particularly enjoyable novel, and I tried to take it easy. And the well – especially following the reading for pleasure – began to fill up ever so slightly.

So, eventually, on one sunlit day, after a huge amount of thinking, I wrote an opening sentence, which was then an opening paragraph. Several sentences, altogether. I then wrote another paragraph which was actually a re-write of the opening paragraph – giving me two options. Then, I stopped. The well, again, had run dry. The block had returned.

The Uniballs I got

I then went to buy pens. I went to town and visited WHSmiths, one of few shops open under lockdown rules. For non-Brits, WHSmiths is a stationers and newsagents. I browsed the stationary section, taking my time. I poked bags of pens; fondled the card and plastic wrapping of more expensive pens; and looked at all the available options. Bystanders may have wondered if I am a pen pervert. I scanned the prices, balancing in my head what should be the proper budget for a pen that is neither too princely nor too slight. It had to be just right.

These pens would help me write the sentences that would follow on from that first sentence.

A teacher that doesn’t follow his own advice has a revelation

I teach writing to a woman based in Beijing whose occupation is teaching English. She hired me several months ago and we’ve been making headway. We read short stories, articles, and we go line by line, paragraph by paragraph. I get her to analyse the structure, the syntax, the use of verbs, etc. Or I explain what’s going on. And recently her writing has begun to show real progress.

In a recent lesson, I explained that in order for her to teach writing to her own students (who are Chinese children) she should perhaps focus on structure. “Once you know the basic formulas, the basic structures of writing, it makes things much easier,” I said, or something along those lines. And I listed some common techniques: using a rhetorical question as an opening sentence; using lists (people like lists!), making use of details and nouns, etc.

I said to my dear student that faced with having to start all over again, on any new piece of writing, and the blank page, of course her young students might balk at writing’s difficulty. But if you have a structure in place, a plan, a clear scaffold, then things become bright and smooth. Straightforward, like a glistening road.

But I came to realise I had not been following my own advice! I had neglected structure.

Asking an award-winning author’s advice

I have an acquaintance who happens to be an award-winning nonfiction writer and an editor of a literary journal. Faced with the trouble I was having with how to start my opening chapter, I turned to her for advice.

Here is what she had to say:

The best advice I can offer is what I do to channel the stuff I write in my head: build a skeleton. Literally, I go: paragraph a) bullet point bullet point bullet point, paragraph b) bullet point… etc etc. Until I have a roadmap so even when I feel like I can’t start, I sort of have no excuse. I plop the fragments I’ve already written into tentative places and then it’s a bit more like quilting than writing.

This was wonderful advice. Build a roadmap! Plot out a structure. I can do that. It’s fun. It’s challenging, in a more manageable way.

So I remembered my own advice and I took on the award-winning author’s and I started to think about structure instead of thinking about the block. That is the tip I leave you with: when in doubt; when blocked — just make little teeny-tiny building blocks and chart a course with bullet points. A structure trumps trying to write the universe.

Daffodils in the woods nearby

Epilogue

Further words of wisdom, from Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter The Imperfectionist, which may help those of a perfectionist bent: “It’s a reminder that in some fundamental way, real productivity – provided you’re working on something worth producing to begin with – isn’t about you. It’s about what’s being produced. What matters, in the end, is what gets created, not whether the person doing the creating has an impeccable record of red Xs.”

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 27, 2021 at 7:01 pm

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