Friday, May 7, 2010

Writer's Dojo #4: Writer's Block.

"The easiest thing to do on earth is not write."
(William Goldman)

Yep. Talkin' about writer's block this time. Yessir. This is me, sitting down to talk to you about that most dreaded of writer pitfalls, and how ironically enough it might be to your benefit to be blocked.

Writer's block is defined as follows:

Writer's Block –noun
a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work.

The act of writing is a hell of a lot of fun. You're creating something entirely new from whole cloth, unearthing something from the depths of your subconscious mind that no one has ever seen before. It's a heady experience, and when it's going well it has a literal, physical feeling. I've felt when it's going well, that little thrum throughout the whole of my being as I realize I'm creating. It's amazing stuff. And then one day, or evening, you sit down at your desk, you take out your pen or boot up your word processor, you wiggle your fingers like that cartoon pianist you saw that one time on looney tunes, you reach down and. . .

Nothing. Crickets. The echo of a vast, empty cave.

Sometimes it's due to circumstance; we all have off days, or we're sick or travelling and our focus isn't what it could be. But when one day bleeds into another bleeds into another and you've got absolutely nothing, what starts as a minor hink in your work schedule becomes something else entirely, something that can utterly terrify the aspiring artist and fill them with that nameless dread, that utter certainty. It was a fluke. It's over. There's nothing left to say. The well's run dry. And as much fun as just dealing with the sudden blockage is, the fear is what will ultimately cripple you if you let it.

We each have something to say, something that's uniquely our own. Whether that expression comes through writing fiction, or through art, or dance, or even a well thought out piece of non-fiction posted to a blog, that expression has merit. The trouble is that--sooner or later--we come to the blank page or the empty screen, face the rows of lines stretching off into infinity or that blinking cursor amidst the vast plain of white space and we just freeze. Anxiety grips us, unreasonable expectation seizes us and holds us prisoner to standards and ideals that we can't possibly hope to attain, at least not right away. How do we work past this? How do we fight something that is, really, ourselves? I've been giving it some thought lately and here are a few ideas off the cuff to help the process of erosion along when dealing with writer's block:

1. Examine why you're blocked: I'm a natural daydreamer, a writer who definitely views writing as directed play. If I had to sit down and examine the moments I was most blocked up critically, I'd have to say the real reason I don't get anything done in those instances is the work starts to feel less like play and more like a chore. And nothing is guaranteed to have my subconscious dig in its heels and cross its arms in stubborn refusal to budge like the notion of Work. With this in mind, I can examine why I'm feeling it's a chore and ways to try and make it more enjoyable for myself.

Taking a step back from your work and examining how it makes you feel can also be an important step forward. Examine why you're blocked. Could it be because that last paragraph you were on feels like the end of the story? If that's the case, could it be expanded into a novella, maybe even a full novel? Examine the work and your feelings toward it. Chances are you know why things have slowed down, even if you haven't acknowledged it consciously yet.

2. A secret identity: Okay, so you're not going to go out and fight crime or anything but how about trying a pseudonym? This can work wonders to ease performance anxiety about writing and it can do a lot to spice things up in the study. While you've never written a Western in your life, Tex Jenkins was born on a cattle drive and busts broncos like they're going out of style. Or a horror story might be well out of your wheelhouse but for James Eldritch they're par for the course. Think of it as equal parts roleplaying and writing, trying on a completely new persona and just cutting loose in ways your regular writing self never would. You might find the sudden rush of ideas and play lead to something substantial. At the very least it'll help you prove to yourself that you can write if you get out of your own way.

3. A schedule: I covered this in my first WD segment, but a solid schedule can go a long way toward getting your mind geared up for writing. If you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that between the hours of 11pm-1am your butt is in a chair scribbling away, your mind and creative juices will sync gradually to accommodate that time frame. And bear in mind that as long as you're writing, it's a victory. A paragraph or a page, as long as you've got something down for that day, it's a step forward.

4. Read: Stephen King wrote in his excellent work On Writing (which if you don't have you should get for an examination of a master discussing the craft) that there are two key things a writer needs to do: read a lot and write a lot. If you find that you absolutely, positively have got nothing, maybe try picking up that paperback you bought a couple months back but haven't gotten the chance to read of late. You've got some time squirrelled away now, right? No sense in letting it go to complete waste. Sit in front of the notepad or the screen with a good book and let someone else do the driving for a while. If a passage strikes you as particularly striking, try transcribing it. Examine how it that passage works from top to bottom as you replicate the author's beats on your own keyboard and notepad. Hunter S. Thompson transcribed whole passages from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby on his quest to become a better author. Reading is the rain that keeps the metal soil nice and arable. Read everything you can, anything you can. Maybe even pull out a really bad book and read it, if for no other reason than to throw down the 'I can do better than that!' gauntlet. Read, and remember why it is you want to get into this racket in the first place.

5. Relax: Don't take it so seriously. Remember to try and find the joy within the work, and remember to put expectation, as well as what you feel the reaction of others might be on a high shelf in the back of your mind and leave it there until the day's work is done. It won't always be easy, as that mental image of Writerly Perfection is a hard one to shake. But just remember that as much as you may grapple with writer's block and the demons of self-doubt, chances are good your favorite author has too. As with all things, persistence will trump talent eventually. It's in finding the mix that you can go from minor to major, from amateur to professional.

Until next time, in the words of Red Green, keep your stick on the ice.


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