Remembering How to Write

Hi, my name is Kelly. I don’t write anymore.

I was asked to contribute to Pub Crawl almost entirely on the depth of my industry experience. And don’t worry, most of the posts I have planned will be about the publication process. I’ve worn many hats throughout my career since starting out in 2005 typing out reader reports for a Foreign scouting agency in a pay-by-the-minute internet café in Times Square. In the ten years since then, I’ve worked at literary agencies and publishers, have begun freelancing, and will soon be teaching as well. I’m particularly passionate about empowering authors to take creative control of their work and their careers.

But I wanted my first post to be more intimate. To give you a chance to get to know me a little before I start bellowing at you about how you should always, always read your contracts. I figured I might as well tell you the truth about me, and the truth is that I don’t write anymore.

I don’t write anymore, and it makes me so sad.

I could tell you about how I used to write, all the time, since childhood. How I studied writing in college and wrote novels and short stories and scribbled notes onto every spare inch of my waitress notepad. How I was invited to read my writing at several selective literary events and joined productive and delightful critique groups and spent all my time writing, writing, writing. Until one day I just stopped.

Objectively I can come up with excuses, but really I think that what it boils down to is that I tend to self-sabotage and am very risk-averse. I started working in the publishing industry, and it’s difficult—at least, it was for me—to be on both sides of the fence at once. I moved half-way across the country and got married and had a kid and put my time and creative energy into other things. I don’t know exactly why or how I stopped writing but I know absolutely why I didn’t start again, and that’s because I was terrified.

I am still terrified. But I decided to write again, anyway.

I did not wake up in the middle of the night, feverish with a new idea, driven by a force greater than myself that compelled me to write now. I have received no visits from a muse, have not carefully cultivated a story that needs telling, have not yet figured out what it is I have to say. I just miss who I am when I am writing. I just want writing back in my life.

Writing is not like riding a bicycle. It has not just come back to me. The act of putting words to paper (or screen) used to be so simple and is now so agonizing. I have forgotten not only how to compose sentences, but how to get to know my characters, how to pace a story, how to have an idea. So many long years stretch between now and the last time I wrote fiction that all my previous years of writing count for nothing. I am not just emerging from writer’s block or coming off a dry spell. I am learning how to do this all over again. And I need help.

If you want to cheer me on you can find me on NaNoWriMo under the name bookishchick. If you have any tips, tricks, or magical spells useful for getting back to the discipline and inspiration and courage writing requires, then please share them in the comments. If anyone else has returned to writing after an unimaginable break, then I would love to hear about it. To know I’m not alone. To know it can be done.


30 Responses to Remembering How to Write

  1. Nir Oct 28 2015 at 7:46 am #

    Hi there Kelly!

    One small tip:

    1. Take a day off
    2. Drive to Minnehaha falls, just a few minutes from the MSP airport
    3. Spend the whole day just walking around. slowly.

    Worked for me :-]

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 8:18 am #

      I live very close to Minnehaha falls, so I’ll definitely be taking this advice! Thanks!

  2. Luan Pitsch Oct 28 2015 at 8:50 am #

    This simple statement rang so true. “I miss who I am when I’m writing.” And yet, it is so hard to begin each day. Five minutes in and I’m hooked, so I tell myself, five minutes. Just give yourself five.

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 9:33 am #

      Like the titular anecdote in Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD! I can do five minutes.

  3. Evelyn Lindell Lauterbach Oct 28 2015 at 9:02 am #

    Hi, Kelly!

    You are a writer. Period. Your post was honest, paced, and had me rooting for the main character– YOU. It seems to me that even when you think you’re struggling to write, you still end up writing something that touches readers. You have a gift.

    Don’t consider your break in writing an absence, think of it as professional development. You took a break and lived (moved, married, mothered). Now, you have more stories and experiences to increase the depth of your characters.

    We’re really lucky to be drawn to writing. A great book is a great book. The authors age, break from the writing world, geography, etc. doesn’t really matter– just the writing.

    As C.J. Cherryh said, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” So write even without a muse, write even when you’d rather watch reality t.v., write until all you can think about is writing.

    The best of luck to you and if you make it to the bookshelves first, send these words back to me.

    Yours in writing,
    Evelyn Lindell Lauterbach

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 9:40 am #

      This reminds me of a line in my favorite book, WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL? by Lorrie Moore.

      “But one can tell a story anyway. One can get a running start, then begin, do it, and be done.”

  4. Chris Oct 28 2015 at 9:03 am #

    “Objectively I can come up with excuses, but really I think that what it boils down to is that I tend to self-sabotage and am very risk-averse.”

    Man, this post really resonates with me and my current situation. I’m ruled by fear when it comes to my art, and it’s often paralyzing. I burn through so much energy rationalizing and making excuses and struggling with the fear that I basically shoot myself in the foot.

    I joined a mindfulness meditation group to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. One of the central tenets is that it’s *okay* to feel: It’s not about not being scared. It’s about being okay with being scared and going forward anyway. Give yourself permission to fuck up, permission to fail. Even permission to be terrified. But whenever you’re about to act, step back, breathe, take a few moments to see how you’re feeling, and see if the decision you’re about to make is motivated by actual desire, or by aversion and fear.

    It’s not an easy road, to change your thinking like this. But this has helped me a huge deal over the past few weeks, and it might help someone else in a similar spot.

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 10:19 am #

      Something I always say to my daughter is “it’s ok to feel your feelings.” Fighting off the fear, or the anger, or sadness is a reflex, but sometimes I think it might be better to let it in. To sit with those difficult feelings and really feel them. Pay your respects so you can move on. Obviously that’s much easier said than done, but if it’s something I can ask of my two year old then surely I can ask it of myself.

      I’m trying to incorporate more mindfulness in my life across the board, and I think you’re so right that it’s a tough path to walk, but such a rewarding one.

      • Chris Oct 28 2015 at 10:42 am #

        Good luck, Kelly! 🙂 It seems like such simple advice, but actually putting into practice takes so much, well…mindfulness of yourself and your situations. It’s hard – so here’s to sticking with it!

  5. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 28 2015 at 9:35 am #

    One way might be to get into fan fiction. I know that it’s a lot easier to write when half the work of making the characters and the world they inhabit is already done. I’ve written close to 600 K words in the last 4 years, recreating the last three seasons of my favorite series. Once I finish that I can return to all my original stuff, which is harder to write and describe.
    Also try places like Crossed Genres, which has a set of writing prompts for stories as they will be needed for future themed issues.

    • Katie Oct 28 2015 at 9:51 am #

      Huh, this is an interesting idea. Honestly, I’ve found that I stress out MORE when I’m writing fanfics. On the one hand, it is a HUGE ego and confidence booster. Hearing from so many readers that they love what I’ve written and can’t wait for more helps me (usually) stay on track.

      That said, my anxiety levels spike THROUGH THE ROOF. I’m a fanfic author who really places a lot of importance on keeping the original characters true to themselves, whether building off of canon or writing an AU. And for me, I actually find it’s harder to do for someone else’s characters. My original characters I know inside and out, and writing them just comes naturally. I still have to be careful with their actions and motivations, but I feel like I know their souls much more intimately.

      Writing other people’s characters is more difficult for me, because I didn’t create them, and so I DON’T know everything about them right away. It’s not to say that I can’t figure it out–headcanons are a fun and wonderful way to do this. However, it also takes a lot more effort on my part to sift through all of that.

      Besides all of that, I constantly worry whether the next chapter is going to live up to my readers’ standards. Getting their feedback is very uplifting, but waiting for it is harrowing.

      Furthermore, in my experience some fandoms seem to have a higher concentration of really fantastic writers than others. By chance, the biggest fandoms I participate in have some of the best writing I’ve seen hands down, whether officially published or for free, which is a little daunting.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Oct 28 2015 at 10:19 am #

        I guess it’s easier for me.
        I start with dialog, and the show I’m rewriting has most of its characters with very distinct speech patterns, most of my favorite shows do. Mimicking a character has never been a problem for me.
        I also feel very strongly about keeping true to the nature of the show and its characters. Chuck is a mix of spy adventure/comedy/romance/drama, and most fanfic authors focus on one aspect of the show and lose the rest. I have a lot more trouble with my own characters. My writing technique is to follow their logic, and that’s harder for me.
        I’m most comfortable when doing my rewrites, since I’m trying to stay as close to the original storylines as possible. I also use it to get practice at pacing and narrative, which I tend to avoid.

  6. Katie Oct 28 2015 at 9:42 am #

    I can relate to this on an almost painful level, not necessarily from a writing standpoint but from other creative outlets.

    I LOVE creating, and all through my school-age years I not only wrote a ton, but I also drew and played piano. I know exactly why I stopped doing both: I got pregnant when I was 17. Needless to say, piano lessons stopped immediately (my parents rightfully refused to pay for lessons when I needed to save money for a kid). I spent my senior year of high school working like crazy to keep my GPA up, earn some money at a part time job, and get everything in order for having my son. And then once I had my son, I quickly I went on to college and wound up juggling a full time college schedule, multiple part time jobs, and being a mom. I’m sure you can relate–being a mom is so rewarding, and yet so exhausting, but it definitely makes it hard to keep up with hobbies! ^^

    Anyway, I always swore that I wouldn’t give up piano or drawing. And I haven’t entirely given up on them (I WILL get back to them, hopefully sometime in the near future), but I also haven’t really played or drawn now in close to seven years. The last time I attempted either of them, it led to terrifying results. It was like I still had the muscle memory–I could go through the motions. But those motions were just faded phantoms of what they had been before, and it led to halting and jerking progress that both sounded and looked awful. (Luckily I at least never gave up on writing, in large part thanks to NaNo.)

    On the other hand, just like with drawing and music for me, it sounds like for you writing isn’t about other people, but about yourself. And to that end, I feel like you can enjoy the rediscovery in all its clunky glory without the worry of having to live up to some standard.

    Anyway, I will definitely add you on NaNoWriMo to cheer you on! And congratulations on deciding to make the time to pick it back up. In my opinion, that’s the hardest part! Now that you’ve cleared the first hurdle, hopefully you can use your momentum to keep you going. And there’s no better jump-start than NaNo when it comes to writing 😀

    As for tips and tricks, especially when it comes to NaNoNovels, I’d say just keep writing and don’t look back. For the month of November, at least, tell yourself that you’re not going to delete anything. If you write yourself into a hole, then stop, backtrack a ways, and start writing again, but don’t delete the text that you’re abandoning. For me, the end of the every November kind of feels like sifting through a mixed bag of candy to pull out the pieces I don’t like. But every year when it’s done and I’ve gone back, I’ve actually been delightfully surprised by how much gold is also mixed in. It still needs to be cleaned up and polished, for sure. But it’s also a very rewarding feeling.

    Oh, and word sprints are a fun way to help you get in words even on days when you’re not feeling it. ^^ I’m sure I’ll be participating in MANY of these, as this year my goal isn’t a set number of words, but actually finishing a manuscript that’s halfway done (it’s probably going to result in at least 60k words I’ll need to write this year).

    Okay, enough of my rambling. I can’t wait until Saturday night/Sunday, and I’ll be sure to root you on online. Best of luck to you! And welcome back ^^

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 12:01 pm #

      I’m so glad you rambled, Katie! Like you, I used to have a lot of other creative outlets when I was younger. I did a lot of theatre and singing in chorus and show choir and things when I was in high school and into college, and sometimes I miss that so acutely.

      I’m currently reading BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert and I’m so inspired by it. She talks a lot in the opening about just making room in your life for creative pursuits because they bring you JOY. That was such a revelation for me.

      And your words on not editing as you write (during NaNoWriMo, at least) are wise. My only real attempt at NaNoWriMo didn’t last the first week because I kept going back and tinkering with the few hundred words I’d managed to write on the first day. None of that this year. ONWARD!

      • Katie Oct 28 2015 at 12:45 pm #

        I haven’t heard of that book, but it looks delightful. I’ll have to check it out! 🙂

        And I did the exact same thing my first NaNo!! I wrote 2,000 words in the first week and then felt too paralyzed by the need to be perfect to keep going. In contrast, the byproduct of my second NaNo was terrible–I wrote 50,000 words of the beginning of a story, only to realize that I had started the story WAY too early and would have to throw them all away. But I learned a TON about my MC, and the confidence I gained by realizing that I was capable of writing 50,000 words was invaluable to me as a writer.

        Here’s hoping we can both achieve it this year. I’ll be rooting for you! 🙂

  7. Elizabeth Torphy Oct 28 2015 at 10:08 am #

    Life. That is what happened, life. And this will make you a better writer. I didn’t pick up writing again until about two years ago. Like you, I missed myself and the magic inside of me when I did write. But I find myself so much better now…with my wisdom and my life experience. I could not write the things I do without all that has happened to me along the way. My characters are richer and their feelings are more real, and my understanding of the world around me makes for a better story. So, congratulations on starting up again. But don’t think of it as a negative. Think of it as research.You still have a long, long, full life ahead of you! I look forward to your posts.

  8. Alexa S. Oct 28 2015 at 11:40 am #

    I feel you, Kelly. I wrote a lot when I was still in high school and college, but I stopped writing for nearly five years after that. It’s HARD to get back into it. Really, really hard. But just taking it one day at a time, one sentence at a time, has been such a big help!

  9. Nita Oct 28 2015 at 11:58 am #

    Very brave of you to say this., and welcome back! I can relate to what you said, as a dancer. As to writing, I’m a newbie, and my advice is to get thee a critique partner or two. I have learned so much by critiquing and being critiqued in turn, the growth is amazing, and has given me a sense of accountability that I didnt have before.

  10. Stephanie Garber Oct 28 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    What a lovely post, Kelly! I so appreciated your honesty and openness. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I love this post of quotes from Amy Poehler where she talks about how difficult writing really is:

    I’m sure if any of that will be inspiring but I like being reminded that more often than not writing is not this magical and easy process–or at least it’s not for me. 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 1:52 pm #

      I had not yet seen those Amy Poehler quotes (YES PLEASE is on my To Read list) and they are fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing! And you’re right: writing is work. It can be easy or hard by turns, but it requires time and effort. It requires that we show up. Such an excellent reminder!

  11. Ann Oct 28 2015 at 2:02 pm #

    My freshman year English 101 professor told me I didn’t know how to write and I listened. I turned to art and music to express myself. I loved song writing. I was 41 when I finally wrote my first book. My best work comes out of that beginner’s mind. The place of not knowing. Not being polished. Keeping it young and fresh. Now I’m writing middle grade books in my middle aged years. Starting over is a great place to be. Enjoy it.

  12. BJ Wolf Oct 28 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Dear Katie, I spent years being unable to write after my mother died because a lot of my lack of self confidence stemmed from her. Years passed. I tried. I failed. I did nothing. I just forgot about it. Until one day someone came into my head. I spent two years with this person talking to her as I went out for runs, just thinking and dreaming and thinking and dreaming. And talking. And then I got sick, so sick that I could so easily not be here. When I recovered, I sat down at my computer and all the words I’d ever thought about this person, now my most amazing protagonist, came flooding out. I’m getting to my point(s) now: 1) Sometimes not doing what you think you should be doing is the best way to get back to doing what you want to be doing. 2) You have forgotten nothing. It’s all still there, hardcoded inside you like DNA. You’re a writer. This is how your mind works, what your heart beats for. You can’t lose it. You haven’t lost it. You’re still a writer. Much love to you.

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 2:53 pm #

      I’m so sorry for your loss and hardships, BJ. I’m so glad that you’ve come back around to doing the thing that you love.

  13. Abby Oct 28 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    Kelly, I so appreciate you sharing this because I didn’t write for what felt like a long time, during college and grad school, and the year in between the two (so, six years). Life was so busy and challenging (I felt like I didn’t have the brain space to think creatively when I had to read rigorous history texts and write endless papers), and my first year out of school was so emotionally difficult that I just didn’t have any energy left to create something new. But you nailed it, I missed who I was when I wrote. And like you, it took me a long time to get back into writing once I decided I wanted to (or had to?).

    A few things that really, really helped were pursuing creative outlets in different disciplines. For a while I kept “look books” of images and phrases I cut out of magazines and newspapers that inspired me. I organized them by theme or color and spent hours putting them together while listening to music or books on tape. It sort of helped turn on the switch in my brain that looked at life a little differently, the way I think many people need to when they’re creating.

    I also got into photography and cooking – again, creating something, thinking about different ways to put ideas or tastes or images together. And I took up piano again, after years and years of not playing. Finally, I kept a journal. I wrote when I wanted to, but didn’t force it. Lately I’ve gotten into writing a little something every day, just to keep in practice, even if it’s just what I had for dinner.

    When I finally had an idea I really wanted to pursue, I took long walks and thought through my characters, plot ideas, etc. I talked them out as I walked. I probably looked like a crazy person, but it helped. I also read craft books and that helped me look at movies and books from a more critical angle, thinking about what worked and what didn’t.

    Looking back, I guess I didn’t do much actual writing until I got that idea that really fired up my imagination. For me, it was approaching writing from the side, through all those other pursuits, that finally helped me get back into it. And once I made a practice of it, the ideas started pouring out of me. I had to start a notebook full of ideas to keep track of them all.

    And now, six years after I made a conscious decision to get back into writing, I’ve finished a novel, I have an agent, and I’m working on my second novel. So yes, it can be done. It is so hard. But honestly, I can’t stop writing now.

    Whew, that was super long. Good luck with NaNoWriMo, and please keep us updated on your journey back into writing. I’ll be rooting for you!

    • Kelly Oct 28 2015 at 4:29 pm #

      Cooking has been my main creative pursuit over the last few years! It’s really become a passion of mine, and I’m so grateful to have discovered that new love. I think you’re so right about approaching things from the side. I usually find my projects by stumbling on them unexpectedly and realizing, ohhhh, so THIS is what I’ve been moving toward!

      And congratulations on all you’ve accomplished so far!

      • Abby Oct 28 2015 at 6:56 pm #

        Thank you! I’m glad you have something creative that’s been bringing you joy for the past few years.

  14. Logan Oct 28 2015 at 5:15 pm #

    Saying you tend to self-sabotage and you’re averse to risk taking is the equivalent of saying you’re a loser and a coward. May sound harsh, but it’s true. And you come across as a bit of a head-job since you “can’t” write anymore out of fear. Furthermore, regardless of what anyone says about creative types’ sensitive, fragile nature, writing shouldn’t be considered risky behavior. If you get to the point where you have hang-ups about it then you’re just messed up in the head. Plain, simple truth! True for (everyone, not just you) who feels the same way. It’s not just “part and parcel of being creative.” No one else on here is gonna cut it like this and tell it like it is; they’ll wanna “support and coddle you” and give you a bunch of BS, not the straight dope. Partly because (they’re) mostly weak, unstable individuals like you. Partly because they’re ignorant. Their “words of encouragement” and shared personal accounts won’t help you, girl. What you need is a Marine sergeant screaming in your face, calling you every name in the book, breaking you down in order to build you up again!!! You’d initially be upset and crying but you’d come out of it at least a little better than you are now! I’m not saying it would turn you into a winner or a brave person, but I do know that you’d be a lot closer to that side of the fence than you are now. There REALLY IS something to “tough love”!!! Been there, done that! Quit reaching out to people and sharing your problems/feelings; just try to dig down deep and muster up all the strength and courage you have, even if it’s in short supply. Nobody is gonna do it for you. Nobody can do it for you. You’re an adult, not a baby. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s my advice.

  15. Anne Fay Oct 31 2015 at 6:12 am #

    Hi Kelly,
    l havent written anything in over 4 years, since I finished up with graduate school. like you, i moved across the country to start a job and then a year and a half later, i moved to another continent and struggled with well everything. Nine times out of ten when I did open up a story in progress or a blank page, Id tell myself later,and never ended up writing because it was hard. It had been so long and I was terrified that Id lost it all and had to start over. But I realized because I had changed a lot those past 4 years that I had to start over, my writing style, my way of thinking had changed. I started writing again, consistently even, with a blog and now Im doing NaNoWriMo this year. Life happens, it’s okay. Good luck

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