Write about the Problem
When you encounter a problem in your writing, don’t wait until you think you’ve found the solution to resume writing. Instead, write about the problem. Describe it, what it entails; describe why it exists; describe how you feel about it; describe possible solutions or ways to address the problem.
Sometimes writers get stuck because they don’t quite understand that writing is a process, a way of investigating the world and accessing our unconscious creativity and knowledge of the world. These writers don’t use writing as a tool to explore problems that the writer faces, both in the writing and in the writer’s life.
One instance of such a problem is when the writer thinks she should be someone or something else or have these specific qualifications before she can proceed. For instance, when a writer feels she needs a certain knowledge in order to proceed, what does she do if that knowledge is unavailable or is not 100 percent verifiable? If the writer describes this situation, that writing may make it clear that there is no other way to proceed, but without that knowledge or with partial knowledge, that this state of unknowing is the truth of her experience (this situation is reflected in the quotation from Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men in “On the Line between Fiction and Memoir,” where she tells her father his silence about his past has forced her to make up his past).
Recently, I was talking to a writer friend who kept bemoaning the fact that the standard show-don’t-tell style of fiction didn’t suit him. I told him to open a story with that same complaint, describing what he thinks he’s supposed to do as a fiction writer; then, I said, he should describe how he wants to tell the story—which in his case, would entail a more discursive, more telling than showing mode—and then see what happens.
If you are having difficulties writing about your past or about your family, describe those difficulties, examine what issues they involve. Then describe possible ways of proceeding, the options you find before you. Sometimes just writing the problem down can be the solution. At other times, writing about the problem can lead to the process through which you find the solution. In either case, this assignment will get you further in the process than if you simply sit around and complain about it to your friends.