Friday, February 8, 2013

When the Cats Eating Their Food Gets Too Loud, Simplify

Lately I’ve been staring at blank screens, the cursor blinking, unable to write. If there was no computer in front of me, an onlooker might think I was meditating or sleeping. I start sentences, build opening paragraphs, then highlight them all at once and demolish them with the delete button.

I don’t believe in writer’s block in the same way I refuse to acknowledge being sick. I’ll fight it off, with drink, inspiration, pacing, and often all three at once. Starting a story, confronting the blank page, is one of the hardest things a writer has to deal with, and despite my constant starting, deleting, starting, deleting, in the larger scheme of things I believe I’ve actually learned something important. Well maybe two things, but they’re related.

First, some pressure is good in most endeavors because pressure (even self-imposed) produces action, and sustained action leads to improvement. However, too much pressure is usually counter-productive, as I feel it has been for me. Athletes and writers aren’t much different; a tense body, or a tense mind in this case, doesn’t allow for proper functioning, and so you end up missing free throws, or ruthlessly deleting sentences. You over-think, grow frustrated, and maybe start yelling at your cats for eating their dry food too loudly. How to pull back from this kind of mental paralysis is the second thing that I learned.

As I was about to break an empty beer bottle on the edge of my desk and threaten my cats with it for distracting me with their relentless appetites, something simple and seemingly profound occurred to me. I scrambled to write it down on a sticky note; it has been my North Star ever since. In black felt-tip pen it said: “It’s all about themes you choose to explore.” There are many ingredients to consider when you sit down to write: where’s it happening? What are the character’s names? What’s the first line? Etc, etc, etc. These are all important, but in my own experience, the theme of what you’re writing is often overlooked, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Like a bear hit with a tranquilizer I felt myself relaxing, I lowered the bottle slowly, and I was finally able to approach my writing with a renewed sense of purpose.

By thinking more about why I was writing a story, and less about how I should be writing it, I found that deciding where a story takes place, or what point-of-view it should be told from, could be answered more easily by thinking about what I was trying to say by writing the story in the first place. By choosing to focus more on theme, I simplified my approach and was thus able to stop myself from over-thinking, and my mind seemed to exhale as a result. As writers with arduous careers in front of us, it’s easy to let the pressure to produce wear us down, but finding ways to build ourselves back up might be just as important, for us and our loved ones.

Dan Kennard currently teaches at Keiser University in Port St. Lucie, FL and lives with his wife and three cats.

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