By Annabel Monaghan
Pullquote: “Reading Shakespeare or Faulkner makes me want to quit writing like going to the beach with Gisele Bündchen might make me want to quit wearing a bikini.”
I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about feeling stuck lately. It’s no wonder, really. We’ve been at a standstill for so long that doing anything seems overwhelming. <You want me to take the train to the city? Every day??>
Stuck looks different on everyone, and it happens to be my very least favorite way to feel. For me it’s a desire to do something without any mental or physical cooperation from my body. I want to get in shape, but I can’t bring myself to lace up my sneakers. I want to tackle the pile of boxes by my front door, but it’s impossible to know where to start. Most often, the most agonizing place to be stuck is in front of a blank page. I want to write something, but don’t know how; or I know how and cannot find the confidence to do it.
I believe in inspiration, but I also believe we need to take it the rest of the way. Ideas fall out of the sky constantly, and sometimes we catch them. Sometimes we just stick them in a desk drawer and go watch Netflix. I often hear writers talk about how they’ve gotten inspiration from great writers like Shakespeare or Faulkner. Not me. Those are writers who got me interested in the craft of stringing words together, but they’re also writers who made me think there’s no way I could do that. They cut no corners. I read their work like I’m decoding a cypher, marveling at the upside-down, inside-out way they use language and images. When I finish reading, I am a better person, but the last thing I feel like doing is writing. I’m extra stuck. In short, reading Shakespeare or Faulkner makes me want to quit writing like going to the beach with Gisele Bündchen might make me want to quit wearing a bikini.
If I’m looking to get my writing unstuck, I like to read something that I’m capable of writing. This tiny act of dumbing things down can shift the foundation of my stuckness. When I was halfway through my first young adult novel, I became discouraged and despondent, because putting a whole novel together is hard. It’s not, as it turns out, the same thing as telling your kid a bedtime story. After I’d exhausted my exuberance for my big idea, I hit a vast expanse of blank space where I had no idea what came next. Sorting through my pile of disconnected scenes, I berated myself for doing something as foolhardy as trying. I probably ended up taking a nap.
In this particular dark moment, someone sent me a recently published young adult novel. I decided to read it for inspiration. It was the story of two middle schoolers, one named Joe Jekyll and the other named Helen Hyde, who meet in science class. They become lab partners, fall in love, and mayhem ensues. Something inside of me loosened. <What could be more absurd than this?> I wondered, holding the book close to my heart. The expectations that I’d layered on myself, mainly from reading too much Faulkner, started to lift. <Yes!>, I thought. This is something I can do. I can come up with a nonsensical story line and tie it together with questionable logic. Time can move in one straight line toward a simple happy ending. This. This is who I am. I was unstuck and finished my novel in a month.
Everybody has their own way of getting unstuck, and I carry this tiny bit of self-awareness into the rest of the stuck bits of my life. To free myself up, I need to lower my standards and reign in my goals so that I can feel good instead of overwhelmed. Write a simple book. Tell a simple story. Run a single mile. Once we’re moving, who knows how far we’ll get.