Working Through the Swamps of Writing

I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump lately. It was due, in part, to finally having a conglomeration of big events resolve and the dog days of sweltering heat descend on me at the same time leaving me exhausted.

But it also has to do with writing itself. I’m working on my second book, have the question of whether my first is ready for submission sitting in the back of my mind, and in the midst of it all, I lost my motivation.

To try and get it back, I turned to reading. Of course, it was a great thing to do and I had the incredible fortune of finding several really great books in a row. I’d think about my story when drifting to sleep at night or when trying to decide if I was going to get up or stay in bed in the morning. I’d think about how I could write these scenes, how the characters might react in them, when to place that one kiss.

But then the day would come and go and I’d avoid writing, revising, or even opening the program that contained my draft. I wanted to justify my actions by saying I needed to work it all out in my head, but in reality, I’d already worked it out, knew what needed to happen, and simply thinking about writing isn’t the same as writing.

In 1983, a book called The Reflective Practitioner by Donald A. Schön was released. In it, Schön is exploring how professionals think in action. After explaining some of the theory as to why education is how it is, he asks,

“Shall the practitioner stay on the high, hard ground where he can practice rigorously, as he understands rigor, but where he is contained to deal with problems of relatively little social importance? Or shall he descend to the swamp where he can engaged the most important and challenging problems if he is willing to forsake technical rigor? 

…There are those who choose the swampy lowlands. They deliberately involve themselves in messy but crucially important problems and, when asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, and muddling through.”

There is a temptation, when we are stuck in a story, to step back, to analyze, to really dig in to what we THINK the problem is. We can buy craft books, read through blog posts, attend conferences all as a means to think about the problems. Obviously, there is value in this, in continuing our education, in pushing ourselves to learn. But there is a great danger, too, in that we can spend so much time thinking about how we are going to make our story work that we never really sit down to make the story work.

Perhaps the more familiar example is the couple without children who believes they know exactly how to raise a family. It doesn’t take long until the theories of perfect parenting go flying out the window, fueled by exhaustion and frustration.

But I think this is what happens with writers, and maybe even more with writers on a second or third book. We think that we have it all figured out, that everything was sorted in the first book, and when the second doesn’t flow like we think it should, when it doesn’t manifest before our readers as awe-inspiring greatness, we start to wonder and doubt, and slowly climb back on the high, hard ground where we can stay clean the theorize.

Writing requires us to roll up our proverbial pant legs, cast aside our fears of “getting dirty”, and really immerse ourselves in the swampy lowlands. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to have moments where we doubt. We are going to feel like trudging through the thickest mental mud we can imagine.

And knowing this is happening doesn’t mean we will learn the lessons once and be done. Creativity doesn’t work that way. What it does mean is that each time we learn a lesson, we can deepen our understanding of the craft, of ourselves as writers, of the nuances of plot, setting, pacing and character development.

By slogging through the sloppy swamp, we will come out on the other side with a story.
By allowing ourselves to make mistakes, we can really learn new things about the writing process.
By pushing our own boundaries and ideas of perfection, we can hone grit, determination, characters and grace because we can now empathize with others, support and encourage others, and recall our own ability to conquer when the rains of doubt start to fall because we have done it before.


Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.