Welcome to Subtle Maneuvers. I’m taking the next two weeks off, returning to your inboxes on January 11. For this last newsletter of 2020: a double advice column, featuring a 70-year-old writer and a soon-to-graduate college student whose dilemmas may—perhaps—share a solution in common.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’m 70. I was a published child writer. A poet at 12, 17. A journalist in my 20’s. Often writing scribbling putting something down but like with a cord around my neck. Usually I used excuses mundane profane even insane—religious fences and racial barbwire and mental hardwiring as excuses for Not finishing up.
I’m 70. Time and talent and tenderness are at my door (Grandmother, when are you going to finish that story about your mother running to find her sisters?)
(Yes, she picked through garbage to feed her sisters when her parents were dying or dead in another pandemic—a battle against tuberculosis. Yes, when am I going to finish that story or any story or poem and put it out there?)
I’m 70. I’m applying to graduate school for an MFA in writing but how do I apply myself to complete stories, to have confidence and to produce as a writer? —R
Thanks for entrusting me with this longstanding and thorny dilemma! There are a number of ways to approach the problem of writer’s block, if that’s even the right label for your situation. Maybe the best advice anyone can give you—and it’s something I’ve written about before—is to get yourself some outside accountability. Many brilliant writers have never really been able to work without a deadline, and it’s very possible that you fall into this camp.
As for how to get a deadline—well, I’m glad to hear that you’re applying for MFA programs, because that’s definitely one way to do it. Even if that doesn’t work out, you could enroll in a standalone writing class, join a writer’s group, participate in an online writing sprint like NaNoWriMo or #1000wordsofsummer, or do some combination of the above. Making yourself actually feel accountable—and securing a deadline that inspires real fear—may require some creativity on your part, but that’s OK: Writers are supposed to be creative people!
You probably know all this. The other part of your dilemma that I want to address is this business about writing your mother’s story. This sounds like something you’ve tried to accomplish for a long time, and that you’ve placed a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself to get right. In other words: a perfect recipe for writer’s block.