Writing and Healing: One Day of Panic and Three Days of Work — 5 Tips for Honoring Your Writing Process

by Pamela Jane Bell on May 6, 2012

Writing and Healing LogoPost #38 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Writing and Healing

One Day of Panic and Three Days of Work: 5 Tips for Honoring Your Writing Process

by Pamela Jane Bell

Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir

Little Goblins Ten © illustration by Jane Manning

Little Goblins Ten © illustration by Jane Manning

Recently, my agent negotiated a contract for Little Elfie One, a Christmas sequel to my Halloween picture book Little Goblins Ten (Harper 2011.)

I was thrilled about the new book.  Jane Manning, who illustrated Goblins would be illustrating the sequel too, and I thought we made a great writing and illustrating team.

Although the manuscript for Elfie wasn’t due for several months, I sat right down to write a first draft.  This was going to be so much fun!  But after several hours of writing random rhymes, I started to panic.  The story was so obviously not working.  The idea of a Christmas sequel (which was suggested by a fan of the Halloween book) was a huge mistake, I realized.  Why had I even told my agent about it?

I knew what the problem was, too.  Little Goblins Ten had a natural story arc in the building excitement of all the monsters in the forest getting ready to go trick-or-treating.  But the Christmas story didn’t lend itself to that format.  In fact, it didn’t lend itself to any format.  My agent and editor had mistakenly placed trust in me.  I’d have to return the advance.  Wait, I didn’t even have the advance yet!   What on earth was I going to do?

My husband, John, says that panic and despair are part of my writing process.  He has seen me go through this process many times, he claims.  But at that moment, as I sat staring at a jumble of disconnected rhymes, I knew he was wrong, at least this time.

I really truly could not do this.

What I should have known is that my husband was right.  But because of the fact that panic is part of my process, I have to really panic, to truly believe the situation is hopeless.  It won’t work to say, “Oh isn’t this great?  I’m having a panic attack but that’s fine because it’s all just part of my process!”

Obviously, I’m not the best example of someone who honors her process.  (Secret:  I’m writing this for myself, too!)  But I am a close observer of myself, and the following five tips are strategies I’ve found to be genuinely helpful:

Writing Tip #1.  Respect your processpanic button

If, like me, despair, panic, and dismay are intrinsic to your writing process, try to hold on to that thought when the storm hits.  I know that’s a contradiction.  If you’re in despair, you’re in despair.  But tucked away in a distant corner of your mind is a memory of a previous breakthrough under similar circumstances.  Try to glimpse that memory from time to time, and remember that a bleak outlook is more likely a reflection of a momentary mood rather than a fixed and unfixable truth about your writing.

Writing Tip #2.  Talk to other writers about their process

Knowing what other writers go through broadens your perspective and reminds you that you are not alone.  Most writers have a process that is, at least at times, profoundly uncomfortable.  It’s also enlightening to discover writers who are more accepting or forgiving of the way they work.  I have a writer friend who reads People magazine or gardens when she’s feeling stuck or uninspired.  I’m impressed by her acceptance of these fallow periods.  (If my manuscript is ailing, I tend to sit anxiously by it, taking its temperature every five minutes.)thermometer

Writing Tip #3.  Step into the rhythm of someone else’s writing

One technique I find both helpful and pleasurable is to pick up a favorite book and read it for rhythm and style.  This resets my own inner rhythms and relaxes me. It’s as though the author you’re reading is your dance partner for a moment, and waltzingthe two of you are taking a few whirls around the room.

Writing Tip #4.  Stop trying to “write”

I was working on my memoir one day, trying over and over to express an idea that eluded me.  Finally, exasperated, I walked into my husband’s office. “I’m trying to say something and I just can’t say it!” I cried.

John looked up from the book he was reading.

“What are you trying to say?” he asked.

“Well, I want to say that as much as I hated school as a little girl, it provided something I couldn’t get by staying home.”  I paused, thinking.  “It’s like school gave me a temporary identity – a day pass to the world of the living.”

Suddenly I stopped.  I realized that I’d just said precisely what I’d been trying so hard to get down on paper.

Stop trying to “write,” in the literary sense.   Just say or jot down, flat out, what you want to convey.

Writing Tip #5.  Put it in your pocket.

A good technique is to take the problem you’re mulling over, put it in your pocket, and go do something else. You’re not abandoning your problem;  it’s still with you, in your mind.  It’s like taking a walk with someone you feel so comfortable with that you don’t have to talk.  And time itself can act as a magic elixir silently resolving the problem in its own mysterious way.pocket watch

In the foreword to The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, the author writes about her story “Holiday”:

“…the story haunted me for years and I made three separate versions, with a certain spot in all three where the thing went off track.  So I put it away…after a quarter of a century I sat down in great excitement to read all three versions.  I saw at once that the first was the right one, and as for the vexing question which had stopped me short long ago, it had in the course of living settled itself so slowly and deeply and secretly I wondered why I had ever been distressed by it.”

The morning after my disastrous day of trying to write a draft for my new Christmas book, I woke up and thought, forget the random verses.  Think of the story arc.  What happens in this story?

Once I figured that out, the book wrote itself in three days.  It still needs work – a lot of work – but the frame is in place.

So the next time you despair or panic about a piece of writing that is not going well, take heart.  It could be that your process is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Tell us about your own particular writing process, and the strategies you have developed to help honor and accept it.  We and our readers would love to hear from you!

memoir, memoir writing, writing, memoir and healing, writing and healing

Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-six children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.

Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.” Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:

“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review


Pamela Jane’s first book, Noelle of the Nutcracker (Houghton Mifflin, illustrated by Jan Brett) is still in print:

“Jane’s first book magically captures the dreams-can-come-true atmosphere of the holiday season…Jane is a skillful storyteller. A lovely novella any time of the year.”— Publishers Weekly

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Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.

Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”

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Pamela Jane Bell has extensive experience mentoring children’s book authors, some of whom have gone on to highly successful careers. She is available to analyze manuscripts for any age level – board book to young-adult – and to suggest strategies for breaking in. Please contact Pamela if you are interested in having her help you write, revise, or submit a children’s manuscript.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie Farrar May 7, 2012 at

As I try to write a memoir I’ve stopped (for the time) trying to create paragraphs and themes and all that. I’m back to keeping a running list of thoughts and let those settle inside a bit. Meanwhile I go back to find inspiration in the parts that are more complete.

As for stepping into someone else’s writing, I’m thinking of returning to the ancient art of imitation – a process I used to do and had my students do when I taught writing. I’m going to pick out passages from other writers and imitate their style, syntax, paragraph structure, only put in my own words. It may turn out nonsense, or it may turn out something as interesting as the original.

Pamela Jane May 7, 2012 at

Julie,

Your idea of picking out passages from other writers to use to shape your own words is an ancient and honored one. I think I remember reading in a Shakespeare biography that he spent time doing this as well (when he wasn’t studying Latin.) When my daughter was in 4th or 5th grade I had her copy out a page from a P.W. Wodehouse novel so she could get a feeling of his masterful style. I still have the paper with her hand writing on it! Good luck with your memoir; persistence is indispensable.

Margarett Meyers May 12, 2012 at

I, too, go through panic attacks. I keep three note-
books; one in my purse, one by my bed (along with a flashlight) and one by my side. Whenever something inspires me, I make my notes in my nearest notebook. When I get to my office, I put the appropriate notes on index cards and file them in a tabbed muffin box (they fit perfectly!). Whenever I start to panic, I go to my muffin box and get inspired. Works really well for me.

Sherrey Meyer May 14, 2012 at

Pamela, thanks for a great post, one that has spurred me on. Now I have a “watchdog list” to keep me in line! I too panic; I think we all do from time to time. All of these tips are wise ones, and I’m sure ones we’ve all thought about or tried. One I haven’t tried is the stepping into the rhythm of another write. I’m going to give that a try!

Pamela Jane May 14, 2012 at

Hi, Sherry,

Thanks so much for your comment. I’d be really interested to know if “dancing” with your favorite author is helpful to you. As the late author and physician, Dr. Claire Weekes wrote, “float don’t fight.” We all need to remember that from time to time!

Pamela Jane May 14, 2012 at

Margarett,

I love the idea and the image of your muffin box. It’s both practical and comforting. Thank you for sharing this with our readers!

Louise Szabo May 14, 2012 at

I have been writing on and off for 15 years. I had finally found my rhythm and was on a roll writing my memoirs when disaster struck. My hard drive crashed. Panic. It made me reflect on not only what I was writing but why and if I had it in me to start all over again. I do have some (out-dated) backup files and when I get my computer back I know that I will be at it again. Because something in my soul makes me write. For the moment, I use my Ipad and GRIEVE.
I send this as a warning. Do a backup NOW.

Pamela Jane May 14, 2012 at

Louise,

I’m so sorry to hear about your hard drive crashing and I can empathize, too, having lost all my writing in a fire in the 1970s, years before we even had computers. I grieved for years and because of this experience I use a on-line backup service now (people also use thumb drives and external hard drives, but I like the idea of including an off-site backup.) Whatever you do, don’t give up. Your rhythm will come back and you will find yourself writing fresh material because it’s in you to do.

Linda Thompson-Ditch May 15, 2012 at

What a lovely post. I’m a food writer who would feel guilty after I finished doing the interviews I needed for an assignment and then wouldn’t immediatly begin to write the piece. I finally realized that the procrastination was part of my writing process. It allowed my mind the “cooking time” necessary to arrange the information into the article I wanted to create. Isn’t it funny how each writer has a unique way to get to the finished product.

Pamela Jane May 15, 2012 at

Linda,

What a great insight, realizing that you needed to allow your piece to simmer or cook; I love it! It’s the perfect metaphor for a food writer. I can imagine that garden writers have to plant seeds and let them mature and science writers might have to incubate ideas. Thanks so much for sharing that with us!

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