Biggest Challenge Right Now

September 13, 2012

So…. what is your major writing challenge right now? When I’m writing, I sometimes become overwhelmed by all the challenges I’m facing, as I am now, taking up, again, the book about my father and World War II after putting it down over a year ago.

One way I calm myself down during such a time is to stop and ask myself to articulate the single most important challenge I’m facing. And then I ask myself if I can discover a strategy to help me face this challenge. The payoff, I find, is that I feel more in control of the writing process though it is, of course, always mysterious, always full of surprises.

Although I imagine that I know what my major challenge is, it’s not until I take some time—twenty minutes or so—to free write about it, that I truly begin to understand what I’m facing.

For example, when I came to a halt in the midst of writing a book about moving, I was puzzled about why my writing came to a halt. I did what I tend to do to get beyond this impasse—make some new writing rules for myself; remind myself of the routines that work best for me. I tried a new schedule, writing in the afternoons instead of the mornings; writing by hand instead of on the computer; free writing instead of writing according to a plan. But nothing worked. Something was stopping me, and I hadn’t taken the time to figure it out, no doubt because I didn’t want to know.

One day I decided to take my journal and begin facing what it was that might be getting in my way. I wrote “My most important challenge right now is….” at the top of the page and then let myself free write for twenty minutes to see what would happen. I knew, when I started, that I might find myself in territory that I hadn’t yet examined. And I did.

During that writing time, I discovered that I was still in the process of mourning my father, who had died in the midst of my writing that book. Suddenly, writing about moving seemed trivial to me. Mourning, I knew, was a process you couldn’t rush (though we’re encouraged to try to rush this process in our culture). And yet, I had rushed right back to my work as soon as my father was buried, assuming that I could force my writing self to work when my mourning self needed some time—perhaps a great deal of time—to process my father’s death, for we had a complex relationship, though in the last months of his life, there were moments when we connected as we never had before, once, looking at a reproduction of a portion of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo.

I realized that I had two choices. Either I could pause in my work and mourn my father. Or I could use my writing in a way that would help my mourning. I knew from my research on writing that many writers—Mark Doty among them in Heaven’s Coast—used the creation of their work to help with the losses they’d suffered, I decided to continue to write. But in a different way.

In the months that followed, I allowed my mourning to inform my writing. I wrote about the moves my father had made in his life and went off on a tangent, writing more about my father than the book I was writing could ever accommodate. Still, in time, I realized that I needed to write this material, and that I could use it in another book once I returned to writing the moving book. And, in time, the book about moving, too, shifted as a result of my decision. I began to understand that moving is a kind of death, and I began to deepen what I had written with this insight.

When I’ve asked writers I’ve worked with to undertake this exercise, their responses have illuminated their works in progress. Often, their answers surprised them. And when I asked them to develop a strategy for dealing with this challenge, each of them quickly discovered what they needed to do right now.

Some writers discovered that they, too, were in the process of mourning: one decided that she would learn abut the form of the elegy, that she would read memoirs that were in fact elegies (Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother is one), and that she would write an elegy for her dead parent. One writer learned that, in researching a parent’s life—the subject of their memoir—she’d become overwhelmed by what was learned because it contradicted what was remembered about the past; she decided that she would figure out a way to write both narratives—the ones she discovered through research; the one she remembered—and she realized that this might make a more interesting and complex narrative, for it would illuminate the difference between what is remembered and what has been recorded.

Another writer, relating the narrative of a parent with a terminal illness, noticed that she was confused about her work because the story of her mother’s illness changed each day and she didn’t know where to begin the narrative, where to end it. When pondering what a solution might be, she learned that she wanted to represent her confusion on the page, that she might even tell the reader something like, “Where to start this story, where to end it, I don’t know, for this is the life I am living right now and there’s no getting away from it, there’s no getting distance from it.” She understood that writing about the experience as it was unfolding was necessary for her and that it might be illuminating for a reader. (I suggested she read Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, which discusses this challenge.)

One writer realized that she wanted to write about what she perceived to be the truth about her family without vilifying its members. She decided to find a way to write the worst possible descriptions of who they were, to tell the reader that this was the way she sometimes perceived them, and then to go back, and write correctives to the caricatures, telling the reader about her process of trying to come to discover what a more equable narrative might look like. (Natalie Taylor’s memoir Signs of Life does this brilliantly. She is twenty-four and pregnant with her first child when her husband dies in an accident; she portrays his mother harshly throughout the memoir, and then, towards the end, rethinks why.)

Yet another writer worried that his writing was coming in fragments, and he didn’t know how he would make a linear narrative of the piece, didn’t know how he would find a thread amidst the seeming disconnections in his work. He decided that a fragmented work would be eminently suited to his subject—his difficult adolescence—but that he would try to find threads in the narrative and write them, but perhaps as a fragment too. (Paul Auster’s recent Winter Journal is a fine model for a fragmented narrative.)

Several writers wondered how to represent in English a childhood experienced in another language for they feared English would misrepresent that past. One decided to use her first language in the work wherever possible. Another decided to write the work two ways—as it would be expressed in English, and as it would be expressed in the first language rendered in English to show how differently each language represented experience. That is, she’d write the major challenge she faced into her work.

One writer relating a traumatic experience feared he would be sucked back into “reliving” the past and wasn’t writing because he didn’t want to be retraumatized. He discovered that it was necessary for him to write about this incident, but that he would set a timer for twenty minutes, which, he believed, would help him enter the narrative, and then leave it. He decided he needed to place a boundary around that experience. He decided, too, that if he felt sucked back into the experience, he would remind himself that the incident was in the past, but that he would walk away from the work for the time being.

Writing about our most important current writing challenge, and then posing a solution to this challenge, might open up our writing in unexpected ways. As these examples illustrate, we writers quickly learn what we’re facing, and our challenges push us into unexpected directions, both in terms of subject matter and form.

So what have I learned about my current writing challenge? I wrote that I was afraid to be sucked back into that time of mourning. The solution I posited was to enter the work slowly—to retype the journal entries I’d made about working on the book and, as I did so, to assess my ability to reenter the work. I’m almost finished with that task now, and when I’m finished, I’ll rethink whether I want to continue.


20 Responses to “Biggest Challenge Right Now”

  1. walter skinner Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    I can relate to this writing challenge completely. During the summer, I encountered a writing withdrawal where nothing my fingers clicked seemed to make sense. Or if they did, the sentence would be cut before it’s predicate. I did not know how to overcome this feat. Until one morning, I realized my pains are my own to learn and to grow from. My challenge was I was afraid of being intimate with the page, but I overcame that wall with the realization that nothing and no one is more accepting and understanding than the sounds of my fingers clicking away.

  2. Rathwana Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo:

    My biggest writing challenge is to become more consistent in my writing practice. Your book, “Writing as a Way of Healing,” is helping me.

    Thank you.

  3. mariham2012 Says:

    As I began reading this blog post, I was automatically reminded of your book, “Writing as a Way of Healing”, which sheds light on the process of writing and how writing can be a tool that helps one heal. One of the most fascinating things about this blog is that you make a connection between one’s unconscious and one’s writing. You explain that, ” I knew, when I started, that I might find myself in territory that I hadn’t yet examined. And I did”. It’s amazing how one, when faced with a writing challenge, can lend his ear and pen to his unconscious to complete all the work. We are unable to detect what our writing challenge is yet, when we give ourselves the chance to pour it all out on paper, it easily comes out. Both the problem and the solution are within us, we just have to find the way to get around it. My personal writing challenges are composed due to the many voices within me. As I begin to write about a specific topic, my pen will start to wander off about another topic or incident. The ideas are many and unrelated. In some cases, I am sure of what I want to write but in other cases, I don’t know what to ink on my paper. I find this blog to be very helpful and informative. I will definitely try the technique of allowing my unconscious to pour out the problem as well as the solution on paper. From there I shall begin my journey of healing.

  4. Peter Orozco Says:

    It’s funny that I read this blog now. Last night, I was asking myself why was I so slow with my writing progress, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. I think I know what the problem is, but I’m afraid to acknowledge it. I never even thought about free writing on it, which sounds like a great idea. I can tackle several issues at once with that great suggestion–start up my writing muscles, acknowledge what the challenge is, and come up with a solution. Even as I write about this now, the heaven burden begins to feel lighter upon my back. Thank you for the blog. It helps a lot.

  5. theelectricccmayhem Says:

    I have to say, you’ve hit the nail on the head, especially with the problems I’m having with my writing practice now. The blackout from the hurricane has completely ridden me of my inspiration and drive to write instead of adding to it. In writing about my mother especially, I feel drained. I’m torn between being nice and being truthful and so I just don’t write at all. I know that I need to follow your advice – to write down what my writing challenges are and to face them head-on, no matter what they may be or how hard they may be to face. I know that by looking a little more deeply into the problems I’m having with my writing, I can see the solution and come out with a more meaningful piece of writing. The story of your mourning and its effect on your writing really hits home with me. It seems unrelated but it affects the writing much more than we could ever think…I know now that the things I have to come to terms with could be much deeper than I’m making them out to be.

  6. Anna Says:

    After dithering about my book for far too long, I accepted a challenge from a friend of the project to write one chapter by January 1. The temptation to say that I really don’t want to write the book at all, thereby sliding out from under, was great for a while, but I was able to resist it. January 1 is approaching fast. My challenge now is to get a chapter drafted (research plus writing) without making myself crazy. I remind myself that it only needs to be a draft (and it will eventually be broken up and distributed through the book anyway). To put it In terms of clothing, I’m aiming for something between sweats with tees and high fashion suitable for the runway (lots of latitude, there).
    Louise, it is such a help to review the passages on self-care in Writing as a Way of Healing. Thank you.
    I hope all is well with you.

  7. sabrinall Says:

    Dear Ms. DeSalvo,
    This post was is straight on. When I have trouble writing, I think of a painful situation and draw from it instead of running from the trauma. I do relive the moment when I write about it but I am healing from it. Going back to a time where I was unable to understand why other people did the things they did I found that it was easy to understand these people. My biggest trouble with writing now is finding the time. I can write anything down on this paper if I had just a moment to myself to do so.

  8. oneup Says:

    The biggest challenge I face is that I procrastinate too much in every aspect of my life. Writing is just so hard for me because I can’t get myself to sit and write and since I’m a procrastinator, I just don’t write at all but I’m learning little by little to write.

  9. Scott Moul Says:

    My biggest challenge, currently, is balancing the writing work I am passionately driven to work on (creative writing) with the writing work which, while important, is less immediately gratifying (other college writing).

  10. Anna Says:

    Louise, you haven’t posted in a while. I hope all is well with you. Meanwhile, you continue to be an inspiration to me as I face my own challenges in working on my research-and-writing project: what to put in, what to leave out, when to stop even though the world might contain one more scrap of information that I’ll miss if I don’t search for it. I return often to your book Writing as a Way of Healing, and to the articles archived here, as an essential part of my support system. You’ve shared your hard-won knowledge in a most courageous way. The authenticity possessed by one who has “been there” shines through it all. Thank you.

  11. Erin Van Horn Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,

    Writing challenges are not foreign to me–in fact, they seem to enhance as my writing continues to escalate. I am currently in Edvidge Giunta’s Advanced Memoir and now, as we approach week 4 in writing, am plagued with the challenge of not knowing where to turn next. My writings have all concerned my mother but I feel as if I have so many more memories to hone in on, and yet continue to write about only my mother. This, I realize, may be indicative that my mother should be my Memoir subject–but I feel so limited.
    In reference to your mourning, this is a challenge I also face. Am I remembering these “memories” because I want to remember them, and possibly fabricate bits and pieces to understand my mourning? Is this the case or am I remembering accurately? I feel that taking a break, as you did, until I regain my understanding of my relationship with my mother is a good start.

    Thank you,

  12. Aisha Nasim: ENGL392 Says:

    Student: Aisha Nasim
    Instructors: Edvige Giunta
    1253ENGL392 Sem:Advan Memoir Writing Wkshp

    September 13, 2012
    Ms. DeSalvo,
    In this blog you describe the experience of a writer’s continuing their work after the death of a loved one or other tragedy. Some people just shut down and cannot express themselves anymore. But your idea that resuming work is a positive thing to do makes sense, especially for a writer. When the writer puts into words memories of the person that they lost, it often makes them miss the person more but bring the memory back in a pleasant way. Sometimes a person’s memory of a spouse or a parent has not been good, but writing about them brings about a greater understanding and while not making the individual perfect, it still explains the behavior and the motivation. When a person delivers eulogy at a funeral, only good things can be said and if a person has bad memories, they should write them down and edit them to find the positive aspects that go along with the negative traits. Later on, they can develop the eulogy to a full scale memoir.

  13. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    “What is your biggest writing challenge” is a question that I’ve been going over and over in my head this past week. This blog really helped give me an idea to just free write and see what comes of it. Not knowing what to include or not include in my memoir is my biggest challenge and being able to free write my thoughts without thinking about them might provide some insight into my real problem. Thanks for the post, it helped a lot.

  14. Michael Frankovic Says:

    The biggest writing challenge for me has been the one of taking the next step as a writer and as a person. I’ve come to realize comfort is a deadly thing. And that writing, or being creative in general, is not something that one gets comfortable doing as if there is a level of mastery to be attained. There is always progress to be made, things to be learned and new areas to grow in. Being a writer is a perpetual process and getting comfortable with a level of skill and expression is sure to lead to stagnation. So it is necessary for a writer to face that anxiety and transform all the worry and stress into creative energy. The last few months have very much been a trial for me. I have faith in myself in that I can instill in myself a larger capacity for discipline and devotion to my work. The memoir I have been writing has felt to me to be something that I have all figured out but as I plunge deeper into it, I realize how naive that is. This is still unknown territory. And I should not allow myself to simply take a quick peep into the obscure and be satisfied at that. Full immersion should be my aim.

  15. Nicole Leibowitz Says:

    My biggest challenge when writing revolves around my instinct to overthink. I say “instinct,” because I believe this impulse is somewhat deep rooted. I have a hard time relinquishing control in my life, and I think that compulsion often seeps into my writing process. Oddly enough, I’m powerless during this practice (the irony is not lost on me). I’ve always had a hard time writing about myself–writing about my memories, and struggling with the weight of nostalgia, but I don’t make it easier on myself. The thing is, I can allow myself to become lost in thought/s, but when I put pen to paper, it’s as if I’m no longer myself. I’m someone else writing these words, making cheap attempts at humor to manipulate human emotion. Even now, I’m not sure if this is me, or someone (I believe) the reader wants me to be. Trouble letting go.. that’s my struggle.

  16. Kelvin Rivera Says:

    Its funny that I would read this at such a critical time in my own writing, when I am beginning to face subjects I’m fearful of writing about. I’ve even listed in my journal each of the traumas I feel I have to write about, but cannot yet go into the moment to recall the feelings and emotions without breaking down. I’m excited to come up with an exercise that will help me to go into those places and explore them, to make them real on paper. I really love the idea of setting a timer so that I don’t get lost in the experience. I’m excited to see what my blocks are, and what comes out of reliving the moments. That being said, this is a wonderfully timed blog for me to read in my life as a writer. Thank you 🙂

  17. Mahneerah G Says:

    I am currently taking a memoir workshop class at my school. We’ve done plenty of quick writing exercises and they are helpful but the challenge I face when I write on my own is how to structure my stories because when I free write my thoughts tend to be all over the place. There’s rarely a sold theme or thought. My mind races and I overthink a lot of things so when faced with the task of focusing on one solid thing or theme It’s hard. I don’t know what it is I could do to fix this problem but I’m taking small steps to get my writing more focused, like right now I’m in a 100 word group. That’s helping alittle because I’d read another writer’s writing and whatever word stands out to me I try to focus on that. Hopefully I can face and conquer this challenge face on.

  18. Sandy Says:

    My biggest challenge right now is writing with description. I love to read material with descriptions of objects and places that I can smell, see, feel and hear. With my senses involved in my reading I feel such a strong connection with the text. Recently in my memoir class we had an exercise that unleashed a whirlwind of descriptions, and I thought to myself, “Wow, this is possible.” Now I am editing my final memoir piece, and I feel with organization, and descriptions linking to how I want my readers to feel as they read will allow for a better memoir. Right now its just a story saved on my usb, but it has the potential to be so much more. I feel as if professional writers don’t have problems writing, that it comes out naturally. Knowing that writers have issues and writers block makes me realize challenges aren’t just for beginners. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Veronica Santos Says:

    My biggest writing challenge right now is finding the voice of my 8 year old self and writing from her perspective. Since she learned to be seen and not heard and when being seen meant she was in the most trouble, I am finding it hard to let her voice be expressed without allowing it to spread throughout my entire work. However Edi, and another memoir author, Domenica Ruta suggested that I just write from her perspective and let her be heard. I’ve done that and am still doing it. Soon I will have to go back and re-read and cut a lot of content (because I just let her talk probably for the first time in a long while). But This process has really helped me out in seeing that the only thing I need to do is to just write out everything she felt, and to give myself a timer on it so I don’t become hypnotized, but to really just let the words flow from me. If I can just write without feeling like I HAVE to put this in my memoir piece then I can relax. Thanks so much for this post, it helped a lot.

  20. My biggest challenge right now in my writing is the fact that I don’t express too much emotion in my writing. Don’t misunderstand me; I am very passionate about my writing but while I am writing sometimes it is difficult for me to express what i was feeling at the time of the event. I know that if i could put more emotion into my writing, I will see a more powerful piece. Domenica Ruta suggested that we just write and don’t worry about what we write and sort it out afterwords. I feel that that particular advise will work for me as I am able to write better when i don’t put too much thought into it.

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