Lost for Words

Illustration: Christian Tate

Illustration: Christian Tate

Helga’s Post # 80:  Few things in life are as frustrating as having to abandon what you love most and yield to what has to be done. The necessities. The drudgeries. The self-imposed tasks of feeding the monster called ‘improving your life’.

Like shelving writing for something as mundane and trifling as selling the house in which we have lived for a quarter of a century. By the time it’s finally ready to be listed I feel like a robot. My office is gone, converted into a bedroom to show buyers there is enough room for an extra kid in the family, should they wish to expand. Trying to double-guess a décor that the average prospective buyer finds alluring feels demeaning, but apparently necessary if you want to sell. As a result, our house has become a stranger. Or, I admit, maybe we are the strangers that don’t fit the mold. In any case, the house is no longer ours, at least in appearance. Twenty-five years of familiarity suddenly a thing of the past. It feels a bit like breaking up a long-standing relationship.

But really, when it comes right down to it, it’s just a place. Four walls and a roof. A tiny spot on a map. When we leave we will take with us those things most dear, our music, paintings, and things collected over the years imbued with memories of places visited and of special events.

And then there is the garden. That’s a little more challenging to part with (although the upkeep is becoming more cumbersome each year). As I have done since we moved here, I get enjoyment from tending to the countless shrubs and perennials planted over the years. I know everyone of them – the rhododendrons, azaleas, weigela , and the tiny fragrant alpines in my rock garden. I know exactly when each comes into bloom, year after year, and which ones will follow. They are like constant and loyal friends. I will definitely miss them. Perhaps another, smaller garden is in our future.

All to say, with these somewhat unnerving and time-consuming events I had to relegate my writing to the proverbial backseat. Am I making excuses for not having written a single word of the new novel that the 5 writers have decided to embark upon?

Before you nod, read on. My neglect only applies to the ‘act’ of writing. While no actual words have yet filled the first blank page, my mind was active and often went into overdrive. There are many hours during a sleepless night that can produce amazing results for planning a new novel. The difficult task is deciding which of the many ideas born at three AM or thereabouts will stand the test of dawn. While I haven’t ‘produced’ a tangible product just yet, meaning I have nothing to hand out at our group’s meeting next week, I did the groundwork. I spent countless hours pondering potential stories and plots, comparing, discarding and in the end selecting a few that spoke to me most loudly in the wee hours of the night.

Isn’t that part of writing? In fact it’s one of the most crucial parts of writing a novel. “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough once said.

As writers, we’re likely both devoted to our craft and eternally frustrated by it – and that holds true for even the most talented writers, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post, titled ‘How To Think Like A Writer’. We could all use guidance from the greats on how to hone our powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing, the article claims. Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits – some quite tongue in cheek – that might inspire us to think like a writer:

Study the greats.

Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.

Observe everything.

Practice the art of observation daily and everywhere — perhaps a writer’s greatest asset. “Read, observe, listen intensely — as if your life depended upon it,” says Joyce Carol Oates.


Joan Didion 1970 (Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


Daydreaming may get a bad rap — but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”

Write from your own truth.

Gabriel García Márquez used to advise young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know. “If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told.”

Make writing your top priority. Henry Miller

Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else. “Write first and always,” he advised. “Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”

Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.

Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.” Novelist Patricia Highsmith took a stiff drink before writing to reduce her energy, and subsisted on a diet consisting only of bacon, fried eggs, and cereal. Friedrich Schiller, writer, philosopher (1759–1805) kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom, saying that the smell urged him to write.Patricia-Highsmith-in-1962-Talented-Mr.-Ripley-US-1st-Edition

Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Want to live the writer’s life? Great. But make sure you’re not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian: ‘You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.’

Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.

When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there’s only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

Just do it.

Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: “Read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

And do it with joy.

As Joyce Carol Oates advised in rules number 1 and 10 on her list of rules for writers “Write your heart out.”

And that’s exactly what I am planning to do in the months to come.

Pages written this month:            0

Plots created in my mind:            >100

Plots narrowed down:                  ~10

4 thoughts on “Lost for Words

  1. Helga, I cannot even imagine your lovely, very personal, home “staged” for sale. I’m all in favour of making change your friend, but sometimes it’s a gutwrenching friendship. I wish for you a happy experience with your sale and eventual move to a greener pasture. Time for your writing will come in good time … And you’ll make the best use of it!

  2. Thanks, Silk. My writing time is fast approaching, now that much of the drudge work is done. I can’t wait to restart. I feel like a dog straining on the leash to move forward.

  3. Helga, you are a brave woman. And you’re right; all the things at the house you have in your heart and those you really love, you’ll recreate in a new place, perhaps even better than the original. Speaking as one who has lain awake plotting stories while my dear husband sleeps soundly, your next endeavor will most likely be one of your best because it’s “simmered” down to pure gold during your “downtime”. All the best friend.

    • Thanks for the cheer-leading, Linda! Glad to hear I am not alone plotting stories in the middle of the night.

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