I was sitting with another writer in a coffee shop when she started telling me about the novel she wanted to write. I wrote the play, she said. But the thing about the novel is …. 

I shrugged. I’d never written a play, but I could understand. Plays rely on dialogue, sharp and snappy. You can tell when you’re reading a novel written by someone who honed their writing chops with plays (or television) because the dialogue sings. It’s having fun on the page.

With prose writers dialogue tends to be none of those things, at least not until a late-stage draft. My CPs (and me!) tend to have stilted, awkward, or obvious dialogue. 

She started telling me how she was going to sit down this summer and bang out her novel. Just go somewhere for six weeks and write it. 

Hearing the strain in her voice, I said, Make sure you do some other things, too. You can’t write all day. 

I mean, you can and I have. But that’s also a sure way to writer’s block, where you’re second-guessing every other paragraph or staring at a scene, trying to get down the end the way it reads in your head. 

Some days, you just need to cross things off the list. You need to do something and have it done. Novels…you get there one of those days….but it can feel abstract to connect to your progress when you’re sixty pages into a 300-plus page book. 

Today was one of those days for me. I revised for hours, checked my page count, and couldn’t believed I’d only worked through five pages. It was pathetic. How would I get the novel done at this pace ….. blah, blah, blah. If I kept listening to the voice of my inner critic, I’d get writer’s block.

So I went outside and grabbed a shovel. For the last week we’ve been tearing up this median strip of grass in between our yard and the neighbors. It’s 3 feet by 20 feet. We’ve been picking away at a patch of yucca and vines in there, digging down as far as we could go where the taproot disappeared into the earth. It brought up the sensation of being a kid when  I would stare deep into the ground and imagine one more shovel of earth would take me right through to China. 

Anyway, I loosened the shallow grass roots in neat rows, then tug or rolled the sod right up. It took me a couple hours. Not as much time as those five pages took. But at the end of the two hours, the grass was gone (for what it’s worth, I rejoiced at that New York Times article about the green benefits of taking your lawn up. Started. Love it. Want it all gone). In place of the grass we’re putting flowers and berries so soon, as I look out my window frustrated or joyous about the day’s writing progress, I’ll see dahlias and amaranth blooms. 

Taking up the grass wasn’t fun but it gave me that sensation of filling the day, and there’s pride in hard labor over something you love. On a good writing day, I feel that way too, but when you’re stuck in writer’s block, you need to sink your hands into something else for a while and trust the writing will resolve in its own way, as it always does. 

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