The Five Stages of Writing
by James Dupree
Stage One: Creating an Original Idea
The Anxiety of Influence
In Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of influence: A Theory of Poetry, he proposes that every poet is influenced by a previous poet’s work. This produces an anxiety in living poets that they will be unable to create something truly original and won’t be remembered like their predecessors.
In May 1971, Marvel Comics publishes Savage Tales #1. Created by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, the story centers around a scientist named Ted Salis who is physically altered by various chemicals turning him into the Man-Thing.
The Swamp Thing
In July of 1971, DC publishes House of Secrets #92. Created by Len Wein, the story follows Alex Olsen, a scientist who is the victim of a lab explosion causing him to become physically altered by various chemicals turning him into the Swamp Thing. Gerry Conway and Len Wein happened to be roommates during the creation of both Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. Luckily for Wein, Marvel didn’t pursue legal action. Perhaps it was due to the overwhelming similarities to another swamp-based character called Heap (published in 1942), of which Man-Thing co-creator Roy Thomas was a fan.
Ice and Fire
Author George R.R. Martin has been vocal in his love for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and how it has influenced his own writing, namely A Song of Ice and Fire. However, Martin has also been vocal about how Tolkien’s work started a trend in the fantasy genre of one physical entity that harbors all of the evil in the world. Martin desired to show that there is instead a battle between good and evil in every person.
Something About Nothing
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote the script for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, which centers on a fictional Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) and his struggle to properly adapt Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. Throughout the film, Kaufman is adamant about not adding drama to the film to make it interesting, feeling it would be like everything else; cheap and derivative. He would rather make the film about nothing, something that is rarely done or at least done successfully.
I lay on the floor, rubbing my hands against the coarse fabric of the carpet, like some half-assed snow angel. I think about all the feedback I got from the critique group. It’s like those Game of Thrones zombies, read a comment scribbled along the side, referring to the pale grey creatures that attack my protagonist. I repeated the comment over and over in my head. Each time realizing my story was just a mismatch of overdone fantasy tropes and clichés.
Two of my characters were just edgier versions of Tolkien’s Gimli and Leoglas. Is this a good thing? Will people like it if the story feels familiar? What if it’s too familiar? What do I change? Maybe I could change the character’s motives. But then that would change the themes I was going for. Maybe I change the setting? Maybe the protagonist is a part of some minority group that has little representation? But what if I get it wrong and write something unintentionally offensive? Or simply awful?
Stage Two: Writer’s Block
The Four Stages
Writer Katerina Klemer presents the four stages of writer’s block:
1. I want to write, but I can’t.
2. I have to write, but I can’t.
3. I don’t want to write, but I have to.
4. I don’t have time for writing... and, honestly, I don’t feel like writing.
AdaptationThroughout the film Adaptation, the fictional Charlie Kaufman suffers from debilitating writer’s block. He doesn’t know how to start his script. He immediately becomes focused on other things. One night, he distracts himself by masturbating to a photo of the author, Susan Orlean, on the back of her book.
More StagesGoogling “Stages of writer’s block” brings up 2,200,000 results. Each article’s number of stages varies. Some list only five stages while others list fifteen. Some of these lists are more humorous than others. Curiously, many of these stages, such as anger, denial, and acceptance, parallel with the stages of grief/loss.
Much like googling stages of writer’s block, searching for “Solutions to writer’s block” brings up plenty of results. Making coffee, taking a walk, calling friends, watching TV, and cleaning are all proposed ways to get creative juices flowing. These are also ways to distract oneself for long periods of time and not get any work done.
Other methods seem more promising such as free writing, disconnecting your Internet, and reading books. Some sites have multiple new lists written every few months, which begs the question: How effective are these solutions?
George R. R. MartinIt is rumored that in order to finish writing each book in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin locks himself in his room with a very old word processor and several jars to urinate in.
Stephen KingAt the time of writing this essay, Stephen King has published 58 novels and almost 200 short stories. At least one novel or short story by King has been published every year since 1974. In his book On Writing, King says that the best way to deal with writer’s block is to add a new problem to the character’s life. Tragedy is a great solution to figuring out what to do next.
My room is distracting. Littered with items more interesting than my own writing. Framed posters and art on each wall, a bookcase filled with books, comics, and collectables. My eyes have no place to look when I need to think. No bare spot on the wall where I can stare until my vision becomes unfocused and blurs. Even the ceiling has numerous spots where the paint has chipped off, creating interesting shapes. One reminds me of a dog I had as a kid. This isn’t working.
I quickly grab my keys, practically running to my car. Thoughts and ideas are scattered around inside my head, manifested in a hulking, malformed thing I call a story. The road calms me. It gives me the space I need to stretch. I have no destination in mind, only an idea of where I want to be once the journey is done. When something finally clicks I replay the scene over and over in my head and then hastily type it out on my phone to decipher later at home. This method has a 50% success rate.
Martin vs. KingIn an interview between George R.R. Martin and Stephen King, Martin asked King how he wrote and published novels so quickly? King explained that he writes six “clean” pages every day. Martin then asked, “You don’t ever have a day when you sit down there and it’s like constipation: you write a sentence and you hate the sentence and you check your email and you wonder if you have any talent after all and maybe you should have been a plumber?” King laughed and replied, “No.”
Man-Thing #12: “Song-Cry... of the Living Dead Man!”
Written by Steve Gerber and published in December of 1974, the issue focuses on an unsuccessful writer, Brian Lazarus. Brian is putting together his “Song-Cry,” a manifesto of his struggles and failings. He works in marketing. He hates that he has to lie in his work. He struggles to communicate his ideas, his emotions. Every time he tries to put it on paper he fails. He eventually travels to an abandoned asylum where he tries to write in peace. Unfortunately for Brian he finds only the Man-Thing.
Brian’s fears manifest around him. His landlord, his friends, anyone and everyone he feels an unending debt to, appear and viciously attack him. They tear at his clothes. They claw at his flesh. Sensing Brian’s fear and the ensuing violence, the Man-Thing becomes uncomfortable and angry. Emerging from out of the swamp, the Man-Thing rips Brian’s attackers apart, turning them into mist. Brian is grabbed by the swamp creature as well, but manages to escape with only a minor burn to his hand, because “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”
Stage Three: Fear
Atychiphobia is the fear of failure. Like many phobias it can lead to a constricted lifestyle or lack of willingness to attempt various activities. Often the fear can cause the person to avoid taking any risks whatsoever. This fear holds the person back, his abilities undermined by his own subconscious. Atychiphobia can cause a person to feel his life has been unfulfilling, causing regret and depression.
During his speech at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Charlie Kaufman detailed his own anxieties over being a writer stating, “I even feel odd calling myself a writer or a screenwriter... I feel like it’s a lie even though it’s technically true. I write screenplays for a living, but it’s not what I am... I’m a person who does this and I struggle with it.”
“The Screenplay of the Living Dead Man!”
Almost forty years later, Marvel Published Steve Gerber’s sequel story for the Man-Thing, titled “The Screenplay of the Living Dead Man!” Brian Lazarus, older and disheartened after being fired from his long career of creating cartoon characters, returns to the asylum.
Brian’s mind shatters once more. His fears come alive. They taunt and ridicule him in the forms of his own characters, reminders of all his perceived failings at creating something memorable and important. He imagines battling his own creations. Each time realizing that his stories are copies or cheap derivatives of better writers’ works.
They tear his body apart. He screams at them to stop. If they continue, there might not be anything left to die. No part of him to leave behind. Brian fights one of his creations, Mindy, a cartoon tree. She is his mind; his dark thoughts. Due to the Man-Thing’s involuntary empathic abilities, it feels Brian’s pain and madness. The Man-Thing helps to fight Mindy, but is caught in her grasp.
Brian decides that the only way to save himself and his legacy is to end his life. He succumbs to his fear. The fear that he will never be able to live up to the great writer he hoped he would be. Then he shoots himself.
Another George R. R. Martin Anecdote
Although Martin has stated numerous times that he is perfectly healthy, many fans worry that he will pass away before the completion of his last two novels. As I read each article speculating when he will die, I start to wonder if he gets increasingly worried about his own health. Has this created a new fear that wasn’t there before? Is he using his new-found wealth and popularity to enjoy what life he has left and distract him from the possibility that he may never finish his story?Just a Fantasy
I sit on the couch. Game of Thrones is about to start. I talk about some paper I was writing for a class, and eventually this leads to my mother talking about how she wants to continue her children’s book. She says she just needs to sit down one day and work on her book, but she’s too busy with housework and graphic design jobs. “I think I love fantasizing over my book more than actually writing it,” she says.
Her words shot through my skull, now lodged in my brain. What if I never finish my story because I enjoy the fantasy more than the reality? It’s easier to imagine the journey than it is to write it. Why put all that effort into something that may not be considered good. The story is pleasing to me, inside my mind. Maybe that’s where it should stay.
Stage Four: Persistence
Depicted as a snake eating its own tail, the ouroboros has appeared in many different cultures. Each version has its own symbolic meaning, usually centered on creation out of destruction. Some versions resemble the Yin-Yang, further illustrating the light and dark in all things.
During a lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Charlie Kaufman touched on the writing process stating, “You will discover things as you work. You must not put these things aside, even if they’re inconvenient... Let’s not worry about what it looks like. Let’s not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honor. It means you risked failure. And if you don’t risk failure you’re never going to do anything that’s different than what you’ve already done or what somebody else has done.”Winds of Winter
Since 2010, George R.R. Martin has been writing the sixth book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter. Failing to meet each deadline Martin had given himself, fans have continuously worried over the prospect of ever seeing the finished product. Martin even revealed that his publishers suggested splitting the book into two parts, although Martin stated he is, “resisting that notion.”
Muscle hypertrophy occurs when damaged muscle fibers fuse together forming new muscle protein strands. Repaired strands increase in thickness and number and over the course of time will show significant growth.
A spark ignites in the forest. The fire builds, consuming the flora and any unlucky fauna in its path. Once the forest — or parts of the forest — is reduced to ash, the earth uses leftover nutrients in the ash to fuel the growth of both new species of plant life and new forms of old species alike. Many of these species, like lodgepole pines, sequoias, and chaparral shrubs require heat to disperse their seeds before taking root. Troublesome plant species are removed, while new more desirable species thrive. The forest is renewed. This is referred to as Secondary Succession.
“We are sorry to say we do not have a place for your work.” I expected to cry or fall into a depression from my first rejection. It seemed like the right response at the time. Instead, I finally released the air that I held in my lungs since receiving the letter, and calmly said, “Okay.” The two months of waiting and wondering if my story was truly any good had ended on a flat note. No happy or tragic end, just simple disappointment from a simple rejection.
When I mention my rejection to other writers, I get high-fives and “Congratulations!” Once again, not the reaction I was expecting. With each new rejection I became numb to the next. Each slash to my confidence became shallower. I went back to my story with the “Game of Thrones Zombies” and begin to strip away most of the bad parts until I was left with only the good.
Pushing through the blockages and fear, I worked my writing muscle and found a new direction. I became excited again. The story felt more cohesive and powerful, though it will never be an exact copy of what I see in my mind. Rejections are sure to come, and I will be sure to welcome them. I am a writer and I have the scars to prove it.
See Stage One.
Push Through Stage Two.
Acknowledge Stage Three.
Remember Stage Four.
Repeat Stage Five
Copyright © 2019 by James Dupree