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Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.

Writer. Editor. Storyteller. Teacher. Roller Derby Girl.

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Tuesday
Jan222013

What to do When Your Own Writing Bores You

The whip-dash-sizzle of a new story idea. Don't you love it? You scribble down a note to yourself, tuck away an image or a few words to explore later. You practically buzz with the wonder and promise of this new thing you'll create, and you can't wait to get to the page to get it down in all its glory.

You write a paragraph or a page or five pages into it, and then the whip-dash-sizzle goes...fizzle.

You've lost the thread, lost the magic, lost the spark. You can't make sense of the story. The metaphor that was so poignant now seems ridiculous, or worse -- clichéd.

You reread what you wrote, hoping to find your way back to the excitement.

But the story -- your story -- feels stale. The writing is flat. Your own words bore you.

What now?

It's a good question, and one I've been thinking about it for about a month, ever since a student in the last session of Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing asked me this:

I was working on a piece and started having trouble staying engaged enough. Do you have any suggestions on finding topics that have more connection? Maybe it's just me lacking passion, or finding the best way to tell this story? It can't be a good sign: If the writer loses interest in the story, it will never make it to a reader.

This is an issue I struggle with a lot. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'll avoid writing. I hate not being able to translate the awesome story in my head into words that retain heat. It's frustrating and baffling when it happens, but it's happened often enough now that I have a list of techniques to use to face it.

(A practical note: I mostly write essays, which fall into the genre of creative nonfiction. I tend to use the terms "story" and "essay" interchangeably, even though fiction writers might want to cut out my tongue for doing so. My essays aren't always even all that narrative in form since I write a lot of meditative and lyrical stuff, which further disqualifies them for the technical term "story," but I don't care. I'm using the term in a broad sense to encompass all kinds of creative writing -- nonfiction, fiction, and poetry alike.)

Here are some things I do when my own writing is boring me to tears.

Write something else. If one story is giving me fits, and another catches my fancy, I'll follow that energy. The path of least resistance isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I truly care about the first story, I'll come back to it later. (If-you-love-something-set-it-free and all that.) There's a time for perseverece (see below). But there's also a time to jump ship for awhile.

Gorge the page with details. Sometimes when I'm writing about a personal experience, all the details of that experience clamor to be told. I can't filter out what's important and what's not. I end up getting in my own way by trying to pin every single bloody detail onto the page. I get so bogged down in details, chronology, and the facts of what happened that I can't see past all this to story's shape or meaning. A personal essay or memoir isn't a journalistic report; not all of the details belong in the narrative. But sometimes I need to get a journalistic account down on paper so the details can live somewhere outside of my head. So I gorge the page with all those details, which eventually frees me up to think artistically about what's essential to the story I want to tell.

Purge the details. If I've done the step above and gorged the page with details, it's time to purge. If I've already tried to trim the fat and the writing still feels boring and flabby, I may have kept too many (or the wrong) details. I'm always tempted to put everything into my stories. Even thought I know better, I'm convinced I can make them all work. But I often find that I have to strip out juicy bits that were fun/cool/interesting to me, because they just don't work with the core of the story on the page.

Binge on details. Three points in a row about details? Well, you know they say that the devil's in them, and it's true. Sometimes my problem isn't that my mind or the page are too cluttered with details. Sometimes my writing lacks vivacity because there are no concrete, sensuous details to hold anyone's attention. My first drafts are often full of cerebral ideas and philosophies that need to be enlivened with the physical world and the five senses. I look for places where I can incorporate colors, textures, sounds, scents, and tastes. Instead of "flowers" I need to say "purple crocus." Instead of vague statements I need to drill down to specific examples and inventive metaphors. If the writing feels sterile, I pile on descriptions and details. I can always go back and purge later. 

Write fast and sloppy. Another thing I try when I'm feeling stuck in the boring muck of an event is to write really fast and without much context. This is kind of the opposite of gorging the page with journalistic details and facts. Instead of trying to capture every last bit of "what happened," I say "explanation be damned!" and let my mind make as many weird leaps and bounds from one thing to the next as it wants. The power of essays (stories, poems, etc.) often comes from these interesting leaps and unexpected connections. My goal with doing this fast and sloppy free-writing is to bypass mental blocks  and common sense to get my pure internal experience onto the page. The initial outcome usually won't make a lot of sense to another reader, but it can help me to find the more interesting bits to explore.

Prompt yourself toward meaning. Sometimes my stories fall flat because I have no imagination or sense of mystery about what happened. The result is a shallow essay that lacks meaning. One way to go spelunking for meaning and mystery is to use the prompt "I wonder..." or "What I don't know is..." I can use those phrases as starting points and let my mind roam freely. This can help me to identify rabbit holes of potential meaning.

Accept the fact of shitty first drafts. A lot of my first drafts are painfully boring. A lot of my second drafts aren't much better. Hell, the third draft might still be fair-to-middling. That's fine. No worries! First (and second, etc.) drafts aren't meant to be finished works. They are works in progress, and even really good writers start slow and clunky a lot of the time. I remind myself to accept this as part of the process. Acknowledge, move on.

Don't despair. Persevere. It's best to combine this technique with accepting the fact of shitty first drafts. I accept it and I keep on keepin' on. Sometimes I have to write and rewrite something many times before it goes somewhere as interesting as I knew it could. Sometimes I have to start something and step away from it for a few days (or weeks, months, even years!) before I'm ready to come back and find the heart of it. I'm working on an essay right now that I've been trying to write since last year. It's giving me a really hard time, but I know that the elements are interesting, and I know there's a good story in it. I just haven't figured out how to put it together in a worthy way yet. But I keep coming back to it every few months.

Write someone a letter. Instead of thinking, "Now I'm writing an essay," sometimes I pretend I'm just writing a letter to someone, telling them this interesting story. This eases some of the pressure to be "creative" and helps to infuse some life into the words. An alternate version of this is to use the prompt "What I really want to say is...." Filling in that blank often leads me to the heart of the story.

** ** **
I've never given up completely on one of my stories, no matter how surly it's being. I figure that even if I'm not able to make it come alilve now, eventually, with practice, I'll be able to do it justice. I think sometimes we uncover story ideas that we're just not ready to write. But I believe that if we're loyal to them and diligent about pursuing our craft, they'll wait for us to catch up.

Reader Comments (3)

Oh, man. This is SO helpful. Thank you!
January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Ryan
Thanks Jenna!
January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea
Oh how I always and always LOVE your written word! Missing the Alchemy course with you!
January 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Wynn

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