By Toby Neal
Last year, for a period of four months, I couldn’t write.
This might not seem like long to you, but I’d been writing close to 2,000 words a day for five years. But after Red Rain, Lei Crime Series #11, I couldn’t seem to get going again.
“Big deal,” you say. “You wrote fourteen mysteries, three romances, two memoirs and a couple of YA novels in five years. It’s okay to be a little burned-out and take a break.”
That’s what my friends told me, too. I told myself that, agreeing. But not writing isn’t “taking a break” to me. I’m happiest when I’m writing, and I couldn’t seem to. Nothing appealed, not even my romances, which are my go-to feel-good projects when I get a little stuck. Even blogging, which I normally love, felt Herculean.
Instinctively, I sought new distractions and input. I bought tons of self-help, lifestyle, writing, performance and life improvement books (along with my usual brimming TBR list of friends’ books and other fiction.) I cleaned my house personally for the first time in six months. I decided to sort my beach glass and shell collection and reorganize them. I gardened. Did a little cooking. (Not too much. I’m not that addled.) I called friends who hadn’t heard from me in ages to go to lunch. I also worked out and dieted, because if I’m not writing, I better be doing something good. I’m no slacker, and this felt like slacking.
And gradually, I began to go analog.
This definition from Vocabulary.com matches the way I mean the term: “Analog is the opposite of digital. Any technology, such as vinyl records or clocks with hands and faces, that doesn’t break everything down into binary code to work, is analog. Analog, you might say, is strictly old school.”
My version of analog meant stopping the noise and distractions in my head and life, most of them somehow digital.
I stopped filling my ears with noise and my eyes with electronics, staying away from my computer except for planned chunks of work using the Pomodoro method.
I stopped listening to music in the car, and let my thoughts wander instead. I stopped listening to audiobooks or calling friends on my walks with my dog in the neighborhood; instead, I practiced just noticing things: the cry of Francolin grouse in the overgrown, empty pineapple field. Distant roosters, barking dogs, doves and chattering mynahs, the sound the wind makes in the coconut trees, the swish of my feet through grass, the feel of air on my skin.
I tried to break my phone habit, and couldn’t… but still, the tiny screen was less sensory input than the big one. The intrusiveness of all the bits of colored data representing relationships and knowledge felt more manageable to my spongy brain.
We had holidays. I usually write during holidays, at least in my journal.
I didn’t, this time.
I just tried to really be with my family, and I had a lot of intense feelings. Joy. Sadness. Excitement. Contentment. Exhaustion. Even boredom. I realized I use technology (and food) to manage my emotions. Not doing so was a real internal rollercoaster.
In the silence of sitting in analog, I got a tiny insight: some of this block is performance anxiety.
Once that insight finally bubbled up through the silence I was cultivating, I could examine it. Interact with it. Test its veracity, as we do in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is my primary counseling mode.
As I grappled with it, the tiny insight got louder, clearer and more detailed.
I recognized the voice of the Inner Critic, and the razor-tipped arrow of a lie that pierced me in the heart and froze me in place. “You’ve done your best work already and it’s still no great shakes—you’re nothing but a self-published mid-lister. Quit before you embarrass yourself.”
That’s some toxic self-talk! No wonder I stayed constantly distracted by internal and external noise for the last five years, trying to run so fast to the page that my self-doubt couldn’t catch up to me.
The usual things I had done in the past to get back to writing didn’t work.
My kitchen timer failed me. Pep talks with my friends didn’t work. Even Grumpy Cat flashing at me on Write or Die couldn’t get me going, nor least the pleas of my readers for the next Lei book, which usually motivates and this time, just felt like pressure. The joy and fun of the Lei Crime Kindle World had morphed into the weight of other writers depending on my ongoing success.
I felt crushed and smothered. Worries about money didn’t even motivate me.
I was a miner, deep in a hot dark shaft, who had reached the end of her vein of gold.
And for once, I decided to just sit there, in the dark uncomfortableness, until something happened.
That’s what “going analog” is. It’s sitting, undistracted, holding the emptiness of departed inspiration and motivation, without trying to produce anything.
Going analog is doing simple things with your hands, like sorting a lifetime of collected shells into Keep and Take Back to the Beach.
Going analog is heading to the farmer’s market and browsing the stalls, choosing three Molokai purple sweet potatoes. It’s going home and peeling one, cutting it up, cooking it, and eating it mashed with a little salt—and nothing to read or listen to during any of that.
Going analog is walking the beach without music, phone, or audiobook, feeling everything: wind in my face, sun on the top of my head, sand scouring my feet, ocean a beating heart next to me, people randomly occurring with dogs, and now really seeing them. (Even saying hi to them!)
Going analog makes me wish for a mindless job again: a place to go and punch a clock, performing whatever task that society has decided has value and will pay me for.
This thing I do is amorphous, making up stories and hoping people like them. Drawing metaphoric blood and using it as ink, Hemingway called the process of writing — a dubious endeavor of questionable value… Not like getting out and mowing the knee-deep grass. Now that’s a job that needs doing.
I persevered with my uncomfortable analog state, adrift in dubious oversensitivity, miserable in my idyllic, carefully constructed writer’s life, unable to tell anyone but a few what was going on.
No one takes me seriously, or believes I’ll stay stuck.
Being stuck feels absolute and irrefutable and forever. But I refused to anesthetize it.
One day an idea bobbed through my empty, silent mind. A silly idea, for the Kindle World novella I needed to write by a deadline. A novella’s just a tiny jump for a steeplechaser like me, but now, in my humbled state, even a fan fiction novella seemed impossible.
But I hadn’t had an idea at all in ages. I grabbed the string hanging from the balloon of the idea and captured it analog.
Written by hand.
“A Thelma and Louise revenge caper set in the desert in Mexico,” I wrote. “A road trip gone badly wrong.”
This violent, intense action idea felt good, like it had the steam I needed to get me moving. Of course, I’d hoped I was going to have a Great Big Awesome Idea that would take my work to the next level, and top myself, and beat the Inner Critic once and for all.
Instead, there was this idea. No great literary masterpiece. Perhaps that will never come from my pen. But this road trip idea is something. It’s enough. There’s a sense that heads will roll.
I decide a samurai sword will be involved, and heads will, literally, roll. It makes me smile, and I haven’t smiled over an idea in a while.
I begin writing, sneakily. Quietly. Not calling it writing. Not saying the drought is broken. Just jotting a few things down. And then I’m at ten thousand words, and the story has me by the throat, in the clutches of evil men on a bad stretch of Rough Road. (Look for it in Emily Kimelman’s Sydney Rye Kindle World.)
This time, I didn’t use my usual technology prods.
I just wrote, when I could, when I felt like it, without music on.
Against the black wall of the mine, directly in front of me, there was a tiny shimmer. A new vein of gold might just be there.
Go analog to beat your writer’s block.
Sit in the dark uncomfortable of nothing going on in your head, no distractions or stimulation, for as long as it takes until your idea comes.
Don’t reject the idea when it finally appears, because it’s not pretty, fancy, or solid enough. Grab hold of it “old school” — by the dangling string, with both hands. Nail that idea to a piece of paper with a pen, and be grateful.
You might just strike it rich with your new vein of gold. And if not, at least you’ll be writing again.
About Toby Neal
Toby Neal was raised on Kauai in Hawaii and makes the Islands home after living elsewhere for “stretches of exile” to pursue education. A mental health therapist, Toby credits that career with adding depth to the characters in the LeiCrime Series.
Visit her full bio on her BestSelling Reads Author page.
You can also find Toby and her books at http://www.tobyneal.net/
Follow her on Twitter @tobywneal