I was almost in despair about a recent ghostwriting job.
I adored the client, my research was solid, and the story was a compelling one. But every time I sat down to work on the rough draft, I accomplished almost nothing. What the heck was my problem?
That was pretty ironic, because in my role as a writing coach, I counsel people about overcoming writer’s block all the time. I try to go beyond the classic advice—like forcing yourself to reach a word count every day, or putting your phone in another room during work time, or just “placing butt in chair”—because that often ignores the realities of everyday life. It’s simplistic. If your problem is time management, you probably already know that.
Instead, I ask clients what’s holding them back, or what they’re afraid of. Very often, the answer is some version of perfectionism. They want to produce something great and can’t bear to see the flaws in their rough draft.
To them, I’ll often prescribe a version of Anne Lamott’s "shitty first draft" strategy. Her point: Write badly to get things started. The creative process is messy, and writers should embrace all of it, good and bad.
But irony of ironies! I couldn’t take my own medicine—or even Lamott’s. The cursor blinked, the page remained blank. I was bewildered, then embarrassed, then angry at myself.
I won’t keep you in suspense: Eventually, that draft was written, and it was pretty good—go figure. The client was pleased, gave me helpful feedback, and encouraged me to continue. Crisis averted.
So what happened? How did I conquer writer’s block?
The secret: I didn’t conquer it at all. Instead, I surrendered to it. I did exactly what my writer’s block wanted: I stopped writing for almost a week.
That was scary. What if I couldn’t do the work I’d promised to complete?
But I didn’t have much of a choice. All my other strategies had failed.
So I started looking at this hiatus as an experiment. What would happen if I were unproductive—on purpose?
The first thing I discovered was that the creative part of my mind was still hard at work. Running errands, or at the gym, or folding laundry, I found myself idly thinking about the characters and plot of the suspended project. Sometimes, without really intending to, I daydreamed about what this story could be.
To be clear, this was not “writing” in any conventional sense. It was something deeper, and even more necessary: Instead of staring hopelessly at my laptop, I was busy creating.
What if I started with this compelling anecdote or that background character? Huh. What if I linked the parts of the story in a counterintuitive way? Hey, what about a flashback?
By the end of my “week off,” I knew where to start the story. That turned out to be with a minor character doing something seemingly inconsequential. It was an odd, unexpected, and engaging place to begin. It was a little weird. It was perfect.
I was shocked at how excited I was to start writing for real. I opened my laptop, placed butt in chair, and wrote the first half of the first chapter without stopping. The rest of the story unspooled satisfyingly from there.
It turns out that my creative paralysis was a feature, not a bug. In other words, my writer’s block was trying to tell me something: I wasn’t ready to write. I hadn’t done enough creating yet.
By relentlessly demanding productivity, I had denied myself the time and space to be imaginative, playful, poetic. I was demanding instant creativity, and that never goes well.
To be clear, this strategy won’t work for everyone. Sometimes, we really are procrastinating with our writing, and we need to Just. Get. On. With. It.
But creating a memoir is not like doing our taxes or cleaning out that closet. We can’t just force ourselves to write something deeply emotional or significant. (Well, we can, but the result will probably suck.)
Now, to practicalities: What if you have the time and resources to write your rough draft but feel frustrated at your lack of progress?
If you think you’re procrastinating:
How to tell: You find your existing writing dull or feel that it compares badly to published memoirs.
Choose a remedy: Find a critique partner or hire a writing coach. Experiment with the “shitty first draft” technique. Make a list of autobiographical works that you enjoy and note what they have in common.
Keep on track: Force yourself to work in the smallest possible increments. Start by opening your notebook or file—and just leave it open. Congratulate yourself on pounding out a terrible page or so every day. Experiment with retelling a scene using different tones, details, or even verb tenses. Don’t berate yourself; instead, try to be specific about what’s not working—and what is.
If you think you have writer’s block:
How to tell: You can’t write much of a first draft at all, feel a sense of panic about the project, or will do almost anything to avoid writing (doing way more research than you need or, God forbid, Marie Kondo-ing the attic).
Choose a remedy: Stop actively writing for a few days to a week. Set aside time to imagine the voices of your story’s characters. Listen to music that reminds you of its setting or historical period. Look at old pictures. Research only the most general background info.
Keep on track: Don’t force it! Give your creative self space. Daydream. Nap. Take a walk. Don’t run after inspiration; your unconscious will often provide it—if you just let it.
All creative work is hard work, but autobiographical writing bears the extra burden of emotion and memory. Be kind to yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The journey is so worth it.