Breaking Out of a Post-Revision Rut

(3 Easy Steps which may or may not work for you) #WritersLife #2022debuts

Recently, I received an editorial letter that was beautiful, complimentary, insightful and inspiring. I couldn’t wait to plunge back into my book, tackling my editor’s suggestions, transforming the story into everything it needs to be. I spent two full weeks furiously rewriting, revising, recreating, even hatching a brand-new romantic subplot between two characters who’d barely met in the last version. While solving some minor plot holes, I discovered that my roster of characters included two Peters, a Westly AND a Wesley. Oh! And a woman who tearfully fled a room in Harlem not two paragraphs after lighting up a cigarette in Quebec. But I fixed it all. Got it in on the due date, awash with relief. But then, once the holy-shit-I-did-it euphoria faded, I was wordless.

You’ve felt this too, right? The crash after flying on literary adrenaline? Whether it was completing your NaNoWriMo draft, a huge revision for your agent or critique group, line edits for your editor, or polishing a masterpiece in time for the last submission day of an essay contest. You hit send. Only to find yourself devoid of language, unable to write another phrase.

What if nothing comes? What if that was it? Everyone experiences wordless days, even weeks. But knowing you’re in good company doesn’t make it any less unnerving.

While I don’t claim to have anything resembling a magic formula to end writers’ block, here’s what has worked for me.

Step 1. Acknowledge the rut and find some other way to feel a sense of purpose. If it’s not your non-writing work, clean out a closet, make banana cake, volunteer to help someone with something—anything.

Purpose is the first thing that shakes me out of my rut. I am fortunate that my day job, my profession as a psychotherapist, is all about other people and what they need. When my writer-brain goes blank, I still have a shrink-brain: wholly absorbed in my clients, their strengths, their struggles, pain, and victories.

(And no—in case anyone is wondering, I have never, will never, use my therapy clients for “material” in my fiction. Those are two separate plots of turf. That is a strict rule which I will never violate. Though I do believe that my ability to think through stories and motivation enhances my work as a therapist and vice versa.

That said, if I am writing non-fiction that involves mental health or my experience as a therapist, I might write about a client—just with permission and a disguised name.)

Having a therapy practice is a gift when I’m struggling to get back into my writing. Partly it’s the sense that there are other ways I can have an impact. Partly it’s a reminder that there is a world out there much bigger than my books, a world of real live people with complicated histories, emotions, and aspirations.

Step 2. Read. Fill up on other people’s words until yours start to flow again. To jumpstart my process, it always helps to read something by someone I respect.

Have you noticed that throughout this post I keep slipping into the 2nd person? Maybe because I just read a raw and powerful essay by Deesha Philyaw about writing about love—which happened to be second person voice. (Also, if you have not yet done so, please pick up a copy of her masterful The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) Read and keep reading.

Check out my Instagram for recent books I’ve recommended.

Step 3. Look over the last paragraph of the last thing you wrote.

Open up a document with a writing project you’ve got going—full of words you once wrote (that was you, remember?). Read over a paragraph. If it needs some work—fix it up till you like it and take it from there. If it’s good, you’ll feel re-energized, maybe enough to add another sentence. And one more. And before you know it, you’ve got your momentum back.

Full disclosure: just now, between the above sentence and this one, I took a break and read over a chapter in a WIP I’d been working on before I got my editorial letter. I read the last paragraph and was inspired to fix it up a bit, to add a few sentences and then stop in a place where I’ll be excited to pick it up tomorrow.

Alternately, open up a blank document. Stare at the blank screen for a minute and then tell yourself you’re just going to play around with some thoughts, maybe write a quick post—something about how it feels to be wordless. Because even those words count, right? Better than nothing.

And onto the blank screen, force out some of the residual words which did not make it into your revision, or which got extracted from some old version of something you wrote somewhere. Free-floating, aimless words, looking to partner with one another and make a bit of meaning. There might be just a few of them, disconnected, but words nonetheless. And when you look over the no-longer-blank screen, possibly adjust the spacing, it looks like you’ve got the start of something. Maybe.

You know, I think writing this helped. I think I’m back now.

4 responses to “Breaking Out of a Post-Revision Rut

  1. I am thankful for my morning pages practice, because I’ve found that tuning in to that feeling of literary freedom does help me get started on new projects easier. Thanks for this educational post!

  2. Thanks foe the great post. I‘’be been there. I had two Col. Wilson’s and they were not related. Revising it hard but once it’s done you feel amazing. Then you start to revise again, and the cycle continues. The trick is finding that point to stop and move on. You will know when. But it’s important to find that point.

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