One of my friends, a qualified coach and facilitator, has recently started offering a Prompt Prescription service where she provides freewriting prompts to help clients work through an issue they are facing.
I decided to try it out, with the issue I’ve been having lately with my writing. I emailed Claire to explain the problem, saying that I currently had to force myself to write, and it felt like dragging through mud.
The prompts and my responses that developed from this exercise are as follows (Claire offered more commentary and insight based on my responses, but I'm just including the actual prompts here):
1) Tell me about the mud:
The mud is thick. It sucks at my boots as I drag my feet free from its insidious embrace one painful step at a time. The story is tied in a sack by a rope at my waist. I have to lean all my weight forwards to pull it behind me as the mud tries to snatch it away, leaving me with nothing. I want the story to float ahead of me on a beautiful sparkling stream, a bubbling brook that laughs and leaps and supports me as the ideas flow and the words pour forth, pulling me behind them in the wake of their joyful progress. Instead, I have to force the story on, yanking and cursing and wondering why I should even bother when nobody cares about it except me, and I'm not really sure I do any more. It would feel so freeing just to let go and let the mud close over the story sack, sucking it into the dark depths where nobody would ever see it and I wouldn't ever have to think about it again. But I know that's not what I really want. I want the story to see the light, I want it to be finished, and I want the opportunity to submit it to places for publication. I just don't want to have to slog my way through the mud to reach that point. And I remember a time when the journey was just as much fun as reaching the destination, and I wonder what happened to that feeling and whether it ever really existed, and if I can create it again. But I don't know how.
2) I untie the rope:
The strands of the rope are wet, the knot recalcitrant. I struggle with fibres that seem bent on staying firmly fixed around one another. The sack doesn’t want to be set free. I persevere. This has now become important to me, to release myself from this burden that I tied around myself, once, long ago. I tear at the rope, careless of my fingernails, some of which rip in the act of unencumbrance. There is pain that comes with the search for freedom.
At last, the knot separates and the rope comes loose from around my waist. I take a deep breath, perhaps my first unrestricted breath in many months. This burden I have carried is unnecessary. I neither need nor want its weight dragging me down every day with the grey realisation of my worthlessness. Without me holding it up, the sack starts to sink beneath the water, towards the thick mud at the bottom, where it will be lost forever. No longer my responsibility. No longer my concern. But, before it can slip away completely, my fingers reach out of their own volition and snatch the end of the rope before it can disappear beyond my ability to recover it. I pull and yank, breathing hard. The mud is a potent adversary, trying to suck the sack into its depths where I won’t be able to retrieve it. But I am stronger. My will is greater. The sack bobs back to the surface and I pull it to me, hugging it close. I don’t want to let it go.
This container of ideas and stories and creativity is a part of me, a part that is vital and important. I’m not prepared to let it go, even if it sometimes feels like an unnecessary burden. I tie the rope around my waist again, settling it into its familiar place against my side. It feels lighter. Have some of its contents escaped, now lost to the mud? Have I lost something precious in my aborted attempt to free myself of what I now see is a privilege rather than unwanted baggage. But no. Everything is in its place, exactly where it should be. It just doesn’t seem as heavy, now I have accepted it as a part of me I don’t want to lose. Before, it felt like dead weight, reminding me of my failings. Now it feels like a buoyant support, offering me opportunities that I can explore or not, as I wish. I can choose how I interact with it, rather than letting it rule my mental processes and make me feel inadequate. The sack is there when I feel like delving into it, and also there when I don’t. It will wait for me to return when I’m ready, floating beside me, rather than dragging behind.
3) Last time I lost the joy of writing…
I guess it came back eventually. There’s always been a cycle of enthusiasm and malaise, I suppose. And the current situation is edging me more towards malaise than enthusiasm. But I’ve also spent a long time learning the lesson that I don’t have to be ‘in the right frame of mind’ to write, and that I don’t have to wait for ‘the muse’ to strike to be able to get decent stuff done. Usually, when applying that lesson, it’s just a case of getting myself in the chair and starting - then the words flow and it all comes together (starting is always the hardest bit). There have definitely been times when I’ve allowed myself some time off from forcing myself to start, and then come back to writing later on. But I can’t specifically remember a time when I’ve really tried to start, and forced myself to keep at it for an hour or more, and just hated every minute of it. Maybe that means it’s time to give myself a break.
But I’ve got projects I really want to finish (and two of them have deadlines at the end of this month) and I know exactly what I have to do with them - so shouldn’t it be relatively easy just to get it done? I say that, but I sat down to work on my novel the other day and I just scanned through several scenes, added a couple of words here and there and declared myself done - when I knew there was more I could do to improve them. I just couldn’t bring myself to focus and actually do it properly.
So now I’m kinda depressed about it again. I’m thinking the answer may be just to let it go, give myself a break and then try again in a couple of weeks. But that will mean not submitting to two anthology calls I think I have a good chance of getting into, with stories I’m proud of, that don’t actually need all that much work doing to them…
There’s an online writing retreat a friend of mine is running tomorrow, which I’ve had good success from logging on to in the last few weeks. So, I think what I’ll do is engage with that at least for the morning sessions tomorrow, see if I can at least get those two stories to a point where I’m not embarrassed to submit them - submit them and then declare myself on holiday from writing for a few days and see how I feel?
4a. Write to joy tell him/her what it is you want. Then write back from 'joy'. If you end up getting in to a conversation, so be it, just remember to let each one have it's say - no interrupting.
4b. Go back to the metaphor and explore it more if you're enjoying that (there's always, always more). So if you're you and the sack is the ideas, what is the joy - in this metaphor?
4c. Write to your story/stories (whichever one springs to mind when I say that) and ask it what it wants.
Are you there, Joy, it's me, Annie. It feels as if, somewhere along the way, in amongst the strangeness and uncertainty of our current locked down lives, we've somehow lost touch. But it stretches back before then. I finished a big writing project in mid-December. I remember it well. It was the last writing date ever with Ann in our favourite cafe, Good and Proper, which closed down that week. And now, it looks like Ann might be moving away from London, but that's another story.
I decided to take a break from writing over Christmas and come back fresh in the New Year. And then it didn't happen. Oh, I've done some writing in 2020 - some might even say a lot - but it feels like I haven't ever got back properly into the groove of it somehow. When I do schedule sessions, it feels like I'm forcing it, and it's you, Joy, that's missing.
Don't get me wrong - I experience you all over the place in other forms. I've found tremendous joy in walking with Dave in the sunshine, appreciating the green spaces we have access to near our flat, critiquing people's gardens, and revelling in getting some exercise and spending time with each other. I've felt the joy of snuggling down in bed with a good book, or connecting with friends and family over board games or watching a movie. There is Joy in good food, an interesting online course, funny videos, good TV, meditation, and even, sometimes, running.
So where have you gone when it comes to my writing? Is it something to do with the main project I'm working on? Hey, Novel! You can weigh in here too, you know! You're the major sticking point. I've chopped you up into lots of manageable pieces, I've got a clear path to where I need to get to, I've scheduled sessions and made a plan to complete my revisions by a reasonable deadline. All the variables are in place for a successful outcome. So, what's the problem?
I untied the rope to see what would happen if I decided to let you go for a while, and sink without trace in the mud. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that. But it turned out I didn't want to let you go. I pulled you close and held you tight. And I finished the two short stories on time without too much trouble, once I just sat down and got on with it.
But that didn't work, Novel, not with you. I sat down to just get on with it and my mind wouldn't focus. I skimmed through the scenes, ticking them off on my list, but I didn't find a sense of accomplishment, because I knew I wasn't giving them the attention they deserved. I knew I wasn't doing what I needed to do, to make the story better. I was just going through the motions and being slapdash.
So, if you don't want me to let you go, but you slip through my fingers when I try to give you my full attention, what do you actually want from me? And why have you chased Joy away, when you used to make such a good pair? Did you have some kind of fight? Are you on the outs? Are you angry with me too, for some reason?
What can I do to make it right? Where did I go wrong and how can I make it up to you? Joy seems to still be my friend in other arenas, so she's not the one causing the problem. So, how can I get the two of you talking again, so we can be three happy gal pals again, and enjoy our time together, like we used to?
Go on, I'm here and I'm listening...
The novel writes back...
You already know the answer to this dilemma - we're all in your head, after all. You've got all the pieces, and you've lined them up in the right order. You just need to schedule some time, sit down, pick up the next piece in the pile, turn it over a few times, set your mind whirring - and go!
Perseverance is the key, and it always had been.
There are always going to be rough patches, sticky sections, where the mud is deeper and your purpose gets obscured. But just keep pushing and eventually we'll get through it together. Every good relationship takes work - you know that! If it was easy and simple all the time, it wouldn't be worthwhile - and what you produced at the end of it wouldn't be any good! I'm sorry I'm making it hard on you at the moment, being elusive and all that - I don't mean to be a drag.
But you're at the hardest point, you know that. When has Joy ever been present when you've been slogging away at the first major rewrite? This is your least favourite stage of the writing process, and you know it. So, you've just got to stick it out, push through and I promise you there'll be sunshine and rainbows on the other side.
As you pointed out, Joy hasn't forsaken you - she's there in all the other fun things you've been doing - so use them as a reward for making progress on me, the pesky, irritable, recalcitrant novel. Find Joy in crossing off the next five or ten steps in your editing plan each day. Find Joy in knowing that each time you revise a scene, you're improving a story you love and that you believe in. There's Joy in sharing your writing pain with other people and celebrating even the smallest steps forward at the end of an online writing retreat.
You've got stuck at the hardest part, just when it's most difficult to engage with other people or enjoy the environs of a nice cafe while you slog at the project. But there are still people out there who are keen to cheer you on, really want you to succeed, and are eager to read me when you've finished this hardest bit, and give you feedback to spur you on to the next round of revisions. So, don't feel like you're all alone with me and sinking in your endless mud hole.
Let's take each other's hand and forge on together until the water gets clearer again, the going gets easier again, and Joy can join us for a frolic in the grass under a clear blue sky.
And, if you need to take a day or three off every now and then, do it - and find Joy in it, and don't feel bad about it, because you know when you're going to come back to the work, and that I'll be here, waiting for you to polish me up into the shiniest gemstone I can be. And then we'll walk side by side to publication with Joy in our hearts.
5) Sunshine and rainbows:
Well, you know what they say: you can’t have rainbows without rain. Rain also washes things clean, and helps flowers to grow. So, it’s not all bad.
I know that I’m going to have to put in a lot of work to get my novel into the shape it needs to be in, to get it published. I know I have it in me to do that work, and that I’ll be glad I did, when it’s finally finished.
Writing is my thing. It’s the activity by which I most define my worth in the world, so I definitely don’t want to give it up. But I’m lazy, and I’m tired, and everything is stressful right now. So, doing the work doesn’t seem like something I want to be spending my limited energy on. But what else am I going to do with my time?
Oh right. Read books, take exercise, play games, do knitting, talk to friends and family, enjoy the sunshine…
But, if I want to enjoy the metaphorical sunshine that will come from completing the next draft of my novel, and if I want to see the rainbows cast across my mental sky after the rain has gone - I need to do the work.
I used to have a big problem with my office job, when I had to do unpaid overtime and I really resented it. My mum taught me a really valuable lesson when she asked me one day if someone at the office had told me I had to do the extra time, and I realised that nobody had. I was choosing to do it, of my own volition, because I wanted to stay on top of my projects and not slip too far behind, because that would be more stressful than spending the extra time on the work. Since that day, I’ve tried to remind myself that I always have a choice. And, if I choose to ignore work/projects/tasks, I have to accept that they won’t get done, and not worry about it. And, if I choose to spend time and energy on them, I have to accept that they will take effort and it won’t always be enjoyable.
Writing is hard. Most of the time, it’s the thing I most want to do with my time, and it’s also the thing I least want to do with my time. Sue me - I don’t want to write, I want to have written! But, in order to be the future me who can take satisfaction in a job well done, I have to spend the time being the present me who is actually doing the work.
This should be obvious, but it’s a lesson I have to keep learning over and over again, every time things seem too hard, and I wonder why I bother.
The flipside, of course, is that self-care is also important. It’s not going to do me or my writing any good for me to push myself past my limits, produce bad work and feel terrible about it. Particularly at the moment, I need to make sure I’m taking time for relaxation, connecting with other people, getting out into the fresh air, and spending time on other hobbies.
Treading the line between productivity and being kind to myself is very tricky, and it’s always hard to know how far to push myself to make sure I get things done, without burning out.
But, back to the sunshine and rainbows! I have a plan, I have a schedule, I can see the bright meadow with its sun-dappled flowers and the rainbow that stretches over it from end to end. I know I can get there, and knowing that will help me push through the mud and the rain and find what joy I can in the process, celebrating the small successes along the way to my goal.
The whole exercise was really fun and very enlightening. I think I got to a place where I realised I already knew the answer to the problem, and had learned this lesson many times before. But at the start, I was stuck and unhappy - and at the end, I felt much freer to approach my writing with more enthusiasm and more confidence. I had reminded myself of what was important to me, and accepted that it would take work to get there.
So, I would highly recommend Claire’s Prompt Prescription service for whatever issues you are dealing with in your life! She also runs workshops and offers other services, details of all of which can be found at her website.