Image source: Flickr CC / wesley_lelieveld
Recently, Express Media asked me to run a National Young Writers Month event, ‘Start Your Story’. Writing notes for my talk, I thought a bit about writer’s block. I started to espouse the value of putting words down on paper – how a story has to begin somewhere, and how maybe by at least starting to type out your thoughts (as ineloquent as they might be at the early stages of your story or article, before you really know what it is you’re trying to say, exactly) the rest will naturally follow.
It’s good advice in general, I think, and advice almost all writers will give to other writers when they are asked about conquering the dreaded writer’s block. Still, in thinking about ‘just starting’, I wondered if it’s always such good advice. I thought about all the times that I got more out of just stopping than just starting, and why that might have been.
Because the truth is that sometimes, ‘not writing’ has been the most important and useful thing I could do for my writing practice, or for a particular piece. Earlier this year, I wrote something for Spook about my experiences with sexual assault and vaginismus. I’d thought about writing the piece for a long, long time – what I needed to say, and what was too personal. What the point of writing about it was. How to write about my assault and medical condition in a way that was both personal and universal. After about six months of ‘not writing’, when I finally sat down and started typing everything just came pouring out in a way that was very organic and honest and fully realised. I guess in some ways, my original, unoriginal advice did work for me – I just started, and the rest had naturally followed on from there.
Except that I hadn’t just started. I had ignored the piece. I had made a little note in the Stickies on my Macbook (where I keep all my story ideas) and had… not started. I called it procrastination, or depression, or laziness. I called it ‘not writing’. Except… I was writing, in a way. And I think that ‘not writing’ as a form of writing itself doesn’t get enough credit. Because by the time, six months later, a friend asked me if I wanted to come over to her place for a writing bee, I had been writing and editing the piece subconsciously in my head for many months. I had been thinking about everything that was important to get across, and everything that wasn’t. And the thing is, I just don’t think it would have poured out of me – and I don’t think it would have been as good – if I had written it out as soon as the idea had come to me. It needed time to ferment.
If you want to write more than one or two good things a year, you can’t let everything ferment. Sometimes you have to just start, and sometimes – maybe even most times? – that’s okay. If I sat on every idea for six months, I would get jack shit done. And lots of things I’ve written in a day or in two hours go out into the world, and I don’t hate them, and I get paid for them, and getting paid for things you’ve pumped out in a couple of hours is quite a nice feeling indeed. Being a freelancer means resigning yourself to the fact that not everything will be your best work, and that it doesn’t matter if it’s not your best work as long as it’s good-enough work – work you can live with when it’s published on the old internet machine and forevermore unable to be scourged from the earth.
For me, the ideas that need to ferment or percolate are the ones that are utterly personal, or which have the very real potential to rock my world (or someone else’s world) once the editor hits “publish”. Sometimes it’s the work that will be super-beneficial for my career, if I pull it off well. But mostly it’s the utterly personal things. In another talk for National Young Writers Month, ‘Pillow Talk or Public Talk?’, Sam George-Allen reiterated this sentiment, saying, “There are some things that I won’t write about because I’m not ready to yet – I have to work through certain things before I can write about them.” When we mine our own lives for content on the internet, there can be a lot of internal and external pressure to write and publish as soon and as often as humanely possible – but this almost never makes for quality writing. By sitting on an experience until we have had time to process it, digest it, and understand the implications of it, we not only allow ourselves time to prepare emotionally for the experience to be made public, but we also guarantee the piece will be richer and more honest.
So, like I said, I keep a little note in my Macbook’s Stickies with story ideas and things that inspire me, and every so often I read over all my ideas and ask myself whether I’m ready to stop ‘not writing’ any of them and start actually writing. Sometimes I am. Most of the time they just sit there, waiting. But that’s okay. If I beat myself up by trying to force myself to write a piece that wasn’t ready to come out of me yet, I’m not sure what the point would be, but I don’t think it would be about trying to produce good writing (and I should also note that the same goes for my fiction ideas as well as personal memoir pieces). It’d be about proving something, trying to keep up with the Joneses, or the Kardashians. Worrying about churning out content or trying to ‘beat’ anyone else or trying to force your writing into a mould it doesn’t fit isn’t art. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’m not into it. At the end of the day, the number of by-lines or publications or clicks shouldn’t matter, as long as I’m proud of what I’m writing and can stand behind it.
Sian Campbell is a freelance writer, the Editor in Chief of Scum Mag and Co-Director of the National Young Writers' Festival. Her work has appeared in Spook, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Voiceworks, and Junkee. She was recently long listed for the Lifted Brow Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction, and in 2014 was shortlisted for the Scribe Prize for Non-Fiction.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.