Adventures in (Travel) Writer’s Block

By Dave Fox

Life has a way of interrupting life. We make plans. Then other plans foist themselves upon us and the next thing we know, our original plans, even the big ones, get pushed aside.

Bui Vien SignI was on a roll last fall with my new book about Saigon. Then, over the winter holidays, I flew back to the United States where I had other commitments and distractions. I returned home to Singapore three weeks later, eager to jump back into writing my book, but my train of thought had derailed. My words weren’t flowing with the same passion and clarity as before.

Whenever we embark on a big project – writing a book, learning a language, training for a marathon, or crocheting a tent – momentum plays a big role in our productivity. When life’s interruptions derail that momentum, getting going again can be challenging.

In these circumstances, creativity coaches often suggest you just need to jump back in and start creating. Sometimes, that’s a trite and irritating oversimplification of how to fix things.

When I resumed writing my book in earnest a month ago, I was hating everything I wrote. I was feeling insecure about the structure, so I re-outlined everything. Then I decided my new outline was no better than the previous one.

My tone sounded pedestrian. There were sections I feared were bogging down the more exciting stories, yet I felt they were necessary transitions. And I was feeling like an idiot for not being able to blast free from the creative black hole I was in. So I did the most productive thing I could think of in the moment; I started screaming at myself: “Dave! You’re a professional writer, damn it! You know how to do this! What the hell wrong with you?!”

Then, I took a few breaths and tried another approach: writing from the middle. I jumped into the stories I was most excited about, planning to double back later and fill in the gaps.

That technique worked great when I wrote my first travel book. This time, it didn’t. My new book has anecdotes and characters that weave in and out of each other. I need to know who and what will be in the early parts in order to write the later parts.

So I backed up again. I still believed I had a great book in me, but the words weren’t flowing. They weren’t even dribbling. In desperation, I started taking tiny nibbles.

Story about the mysterious fortune teller. Sounded like crap.

Story about the sad and gentle heroin dealer. Sounded like crap.

Story about the grandmotherly street-noodle lady. More crap.

Vietnam-sgn-crazy-buffalo-davefox-globejotting-2Neon sign! Big ugly neon sign! Big ugly neon sign that keeps catching on fire! Maybe?

I tried writing about the sign thinking it would lead me into the story of the allegedly haunted bar where the sign flashes. But I didn’t feel like writing about my ghost-hunting efforts. I just wasn’t in the mood. So I focused solely on the neon. And out of nowhere tumbled a chapter about the street children who have been evicted from their scraps of sidewalk underneath that neon sign.

Finally! I was back in my groove.

But it took a whole bunch of random attempts, and a healthy serving of profanity (screamed, not written) to get me to that point.

Sometimes, the advice for people struggling with writer’s block, or any other sort of creative block, to just do something, is good advice. But sometimes, it doesn’t work.

Sometimes, we get so stuck in the mud, “just doing something” results in spinning our wheels with no forward movement. When that happens, it’s time to start playing. Try one direction for a couple of hours or a couple of days. If that doesn’t get you unstuck, then try something else. Keep flinging random darts — quickly and recklessly — until one of them sticks.

Use profanity as needed.

After multiple stalls, my Saigon book is flowing again.

I’ve also been wrangling lately with another sort of writer’s block. I’ve lived in Singapore two-and-a-half years, and I rarely write about this country. I realized last week I have uncomfortable reasons for this.

Kattina and I had to choose recently whether to sign on for a fourth year here or move elsewhere this summer. What did we decide, and why have I felt uninspired to write about Singapore? Explaining the answers feels awkward. But if writer’s block and other chaos don’t get the better of me, I’ll tell you what they are soon.

Published on Monday, March 10, 2014

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