When the words won't come

A portrait of Nicole Hayes
Nicole Hayes
3 November 2014
With: 
Nicole Hayes

Sometimes I can’t stop writing. Sometimes the words tumble out of me like some writhing, living beast that refuses to be contained. Where the story emerges, almost unbidden, and it’s all I can do for my fingers to keep up with the rapid pace of my mind. Suddenly the dreaded white page is covered in satisfying black—whole chapters completed, an entire story driven home. Perhaps in a single day. Perhaps in just a few hours.

Those moments are as intoxicating as 100-proof vodka and as satisfying as the best kind of sex. They are also incredibly rare.

Most of the time writing is work. Hard work. Most mornings I have to convince myself to sit at my desk agonising over every word, pushing them out like some kind of literary constipation, only to delete the whole lot soon after. Often, despite hours of forced concentration, I end up with barely a new sentence to show for it. For great stretches, writing even a few hundred words in a single day feels like a win, and hitting the sweet spot of one thousand words seems as likely as earning selection in Australia’s First Eleven.

But I can’t give up or it will never be done. So how do I force the words when they don’t feel like coming?

I write about it.

That might seem like an oxymoron—if you can’t write, you can’t write. Right?

Wrong.

Usually there are words—I always have plenty to say!—but they’re not the right words. They’re not articulating what I want to say, or staying true to the story I want to tell. And that’s what stops my fingers from pressing the keys and the sentences from coming together. So when I sense this is happening, I force myself to let go of the very idea of ‘the right words’ and accept that it’s also fine to write the wrong ones.

Instead, I write the thoughts that are shutting down my creative mind. I give them a voice, some space, and yes, some power, because as long as they stay inside me, they seem determined to block the story that needs to come out. So, rather than stare into space, cursing the stilted, awkward sentences that fill my mind while leaving the page blank, I write them down.

I start the page like this: ‘What I want to write about, but can’t, is…a writing exercise for Writers Victoria. It has to be helpful, and I’d like it to be something I’ve tried and tested. I’d like it to provide a clear example of how it works, and a direct instruction for application…’

And on I go. For fifteen minutes.

Eventually, I get to the point. Eventually, I find the words that eluded me, and soon enough I’ve found the story. Of course, I have to go back and cut out a whole lot of dreck. But that’s fine because I got there in the end when nothing else would work. Eventually, I wrote: ‘Sometimes I can’t stop writing. So this is what I want you to do. Rather than fret and worry about what you’d like to write about, actually force yourself to start writing about it, even if you don’t know where you want to go. Even if the words are not the ones you think belong. Even if it’s just “thinking out loud”.’

Begin by writing out these words: ‘I’d like to write about…’

And fill in the gap. Keep going for fifteen minutes. Don’t stop! Don’t question or force the outcome, and don’t edit as you go. Just write for fifteen straight minutes explaining what it is that you’d like to write about, and see if you find your way to the right words.

The worst that happens is you’ve written a rough outline for what you want to write. The best that happens is you’ve broken through the barrier and you’re on your way to writing your story.

About Nicole Hayes

Nicole Hayes is the author of ‘The Whole of My World’, which was longlisted for the 2014 Inky Gold Awards and shortlisted for the Young Australian Best Book Awards. She teaches Creative Writing at Australian Writers Centre, University of Melbourne and Phoenix Park Neighbourhood House.