A traveler came upon the opening of a cave exposed by a mudslide, and, seeking shelter for the night, he entered the maw. Inside he discovered the usual: piles of gold and silver, gems of all sizes and shapes, treasures beyond the imagination, and of course a small oil-lamp, which did not have the same luster as the rest of the riches, being tarnished by natural forces. Knowing full well that the lamp was therefore the least obviously supernatural object in the cave, it must also be the most important, and since he was familiar with myths of Djinn and the three wishes the creature would grant, he rubbed the lamp, pretending that he was shining it (for effect). He was still somewhat surprised when a giant, iridescent being appeared from the spout of the lamp, but perhaps he was only startled; he set the lamp on the floor and gave a low bow to the Djinn, hoping that it was not the vengeful type most typically found in the Arabian Nights, of which he’d read enough of to know the dangers.
“Who dares disturb the Djinn of the Lamp?” Boomed the supernatural being. He (or it) seemed to be made of plasma, or at least very hot gas, being somewhat transparent but also giving off a significant amount of prismatic light. His eyes were glowing brighter than the sun, and his arms were folded exactly how you’d expect them to be.
“It is I,” said our bowing protagonist, “a simple traveler, who has awakened you.”
“So it is. Tell me humble traveler, what are your deepest wishes, for I will make them come true. I will grant you three such wishes, by the grace of Allah.”
“Three then…” the traveler rose from his bow and looked the Djinn head to lamp, then hummed to himself.
“What is your first wish?”
“Hold on a moment!” The traveler raised his hands in protest. “You haven’t told me the rules!”
The Djinn let out a terrible yell which shook the cavern and caused some of the treasures to avalanche. “The Rules?” He bellowed in contempt, perhaps, and then began chuckling. “What do you mean, rules?”
“Well!” The traveler sat down on a pile of gold. “Aren’t there rules? For example, could I, hypothetically, wish for more wishes?”
“But would you give me more?”
The Djinn gave a great laugh, which reverberated in the chamber for almost a minute. “You are wise, humble traveler! I would not give you more wishes. By the Grace of Allah a man can have three and three only!”
“Ah, I see…” the traveler thought this over for a second. “So I wouldn’t be able to wish for more Djinns, either.”
In that moment the brightness of the Djinn faded and his form became more solid. His eyes lost some of their glow, and his arms dropped limply to his sides. “More… Djinn?” His frown became not a terrible countenance but the simple look of the perplexed. “Come on,” he said in a no-longer booming voice, “you can’t seriously believe that I would, or even could, make more Djinn for you.”
The traveler nodded. “That’s what I’m talking about. Rules. Restrictions. Limits to your power.”
“My powers come from Allah. If he wishes me to have limitless power, it will be so.”
“Right. But not right now.”
The Djinn looked defeated, wearing an expression of someone who had just discovered that they were under-dressed for an occasion. “No. Not right now.”
“So what is the extent of your power?”
The Djinn became terrifying again, his body glowing more brightly than before, his eyes like a thousand suns… his arms folded across his chest. His voice was like thunder or something else very loud. “Humble Traveller! You have not made any wishes!”
Keeping his cool (although the reversion of the Djinn had caught him off guard) the traveler lowered his hands (which had been protecting his face instinctually) and grinned like an idiot. “Is there a time frame?”
“How long do I have to make the wishes?”
The Djinn’s shoulders slumped, and all the glow went out of him. “Seriously dude?”
“Yeah. I mean, I have questions. Is it alright for me to ask, or will I lose my wishes?”
The Djinn glared at him, but then said, in monotone, “By the Grace of Allah you have three wishes.” He let out a huge sigh (which the traveler noted, wondering if the Djinn respired or feigned the behavior) and folded his arms in a lazy, comfortable way. “Ask your questions.”
The traveler smirked. “Thanks… I mean, here I am, standing with a massively ancient being of incredible power, and, well, I’d be foolish of me not to learn as much as I could.”
Now the Djinn smirked, but twitched the smile away. “Why not wish for all knowledge? I could give you the wisdom of Allah, the divine understanding of all things!”
The traveler raised an eyebrow, nodded, and scratched his chin. “Yes,” he said, “but that would most certainly kill me, wouldn’t it?”
The Djinn’s mouth hung open.
The traveler continued. “giving me all the knowledge that exists in the universe would cause my head to become so heavy that it would likely collapse into a singularity. At the very least, I’d become so confused that I wouldn’t be able to function; no, honorable Djinn, I won’t be wishing for Cosmic Understanding, that is for certain!”
The Djinn wiped his hand on his forehead. “You are wise, humble traveler.”
“Every action has consequences. That’s why I must be extra cautious with my wishes. I might cause myself or someone I love great harm!”
“You are trying my patience! Why not wish for riches, immortality, or power?”
The traveler scratched his chin and thought. Then: “No, I don’t think any of those wishes will do, not without a lot of forethought!”
The Djinn simply waited.
“Suppose I wish for riches? Well, our societies are so advanced that we have nearly infallible record-keeping. Perhaps I wish for millions of dollars… where do those dollars come from? Our paper money has serial numbers, so that counterfeit bills are easily found. Sooner or later, someone would notice all of that extra money, and I’d go to jail. I could never take the money to the bank; they’d notice immediately. Perhaps the money came from someone else? Why, I could ruin them, and who knows what consequence could come from that! I could put hundreds or thousands out of work. No, I don’t wish for riches that way.”
“What about Power?” asked the bewildered Djinn.
“Power,” the traveler folded his arms. “What kind of power? I don’t wish to rule a nation, or even the planet. Frankly, I doubt I’d be any good at either. I don’t know much about politics, or economics, or any of that sort of thing; I’m a simple traveler. Likely, if I wished myself into power, I would come to a grisly end after a few short years, when the people could no longer stand my ineptitude.”
The traveler nodded. “And immortality! What a bittersweet gift that would be! To watch the empires rise and fall… and eventually fall forever. Who wants to be alone for a billion years before the end? And what if there is an afterlife? Would living forever prevent me from gaining everlasting life in paradise? And more to the point,” continued the excited traveler,” in what capacity would I live forever? What if someone chopped my head off! Why, I wouldn’t wish to spend a minute as a head without a body, let alone thousands or millions of years.”
The Djinn raised his hands. “Just… just… forget…”
But the traveler continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I’d have to wish that I was also impervious, but then, what if this conflicted with my natural body functions? Our cells are designed to die after a certain number of divisions… imagine, I wish to be immortal and impervious, and then suffer from systematic, body-wide cancer…” the traveler placed a hand on his cheek, wide eyed. “Yeash! You can see why this is difficult for me.”
During the rant, the Djinn had formed legs for himself, and was now seated on a pile of gold coins, his head in his hands. He was silent.
The traveler looked at the Djinn for a while, a finger to his lips, pondering. At last he asked “Do you wish to be free?”
The Djinn looked up at him. “Free? How do you mean?”
“Well, aren’t you sick of being in that lamp?”
“Should I be?”
The traveler shrugged. “I wouldn’t want to be kept in one place for such a long time. Wouldn’t you like the freedom to do as you wish, to go where you wanted, to live life on your own terms?”
The brow of the Djinn was knit. He seemed deep in thought. Finally he answered. “My lamp is to me as the Earth is to you.”
“But you have to follow the rules, and grant wishes!”
“I like granting wishes!” then, under his breath, “normally.”
“When was the last time you granted wishes?”
“About 10,000 years ago.”
The traveler scratched himself under the arm. “But that’s, well, that’s before civilization…”
“There is much you don’t know about the world, Humble Traveler.”
“Well, where shall we begin?”
The Djinn looked around at the cavern filled with splendors. He winced. “Now?”
The traveler smiled. “I wish for a nice, comfortable chair, great for sitting for hours on end, and a stack of notebooks… with a good, working pen!”
The Djinn closed his eyes as his mouth sat agape. “Really?”
“Yes. Can that be all one wish?”
“Sure, why not? Anything else?”
“Maybe a soda?”
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
A simple Google search will yield thousands of bits of advice about overcoming writer’s block, and most of it is drivel, the kind of “This is what I do” advice that often fails to address the problem. I’ve always abhorred writing exercises, prompts, and the ilk; to me, these things serve only to get words on paper, thoughtless busywork of the worst kind, ultimately resulting in writing that is both shallow and devoid of character. I reject this kind of school-yard writing as a cure to writer’s block.
No, if one wants to overcome writer’s block, one must first understand why one cannot write.
When dealing with the dreaded block, it is important to first recognize precisely what type of writer's block you have. Not all blocks are created equally, after all. And yes, this too is advice on how to defeat block, but it is my intent to give more universal advice and stray away from the more useless ideas. I personally categorize writer’s block in three separate categories: UNwriter’s Block, PlotBlock, and LAZYBlock.
1. UNwriter’s block
THE FIRST TYPE OF BLOCK is when you simply have no idea what to write about. This seems like the worst type of block to overcome, but it is actually, by far, the easiest to conquer.
When I have UNwriter's block, I first remind myself that I am trying too hard. Really! I'm usually trying too hard to come up with a 'good' idea, something that really grabs my mind, some concept that has never been done before. All the ideas I have seem stupid and simple, and I can't latch on to any of them. "No one would read that!" I say to myself. Sometimes it seems like I have no ideas at all, that my mind is literally empty of literary merit. But it is the same thing: Either I am dismissing my ideas consciously, or unconsciously I am not paying any attention to my ideas, letting them rise and fall almost as if in meditation.
But think of it this way: all stories, when reduced to the kernel of their plot, sound ridiculous. No one would read them! Examples: There is a type of ice that exists at room temperature: Cat's Cradle. A boy doesn't want to grow up: Catcher in the Rye, Peter Pan, many others. The depressing life of a salesman: Death of a Salesman. There are Zombies: World War Z. The king needs to be killed: Julius Caesar. There is a kid that turns out to be a wizard: Harry Potter. A man does drugs: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A man has an imaginary friend: Fight Club. A man travels to hell and then to heaven: The Divine Comedy. A guy died: The death of Ivan Ilyich. Dude can't get home: The Odyssey. And so on and so forth.
The point is, when stuck with UNwriter's block, all you have to do is realize that just about any idea you have is a jumping off point. Then, just start thinking about anything that goes along with it, or contrasts with it. Start writing down the ideas, and I make a list of possible plots, possible ideas, possible characters, what-have-you. Soon, you got something to write.
I think this approach is better than writing prompts because writing prompts give you an idea to work with, but it isn't your idea, so you don't mentally "own" it. But that's just like, my opinion, man.
A lot of people prescribe "free-writing" when a person has UNwriter's block, but that often just makes stories that don't take off or go anywhere. There is nothing wrong with thinking about writing as opposed to writing. Sitting there and filling a notebook page full of possible ideas is as valid a creative activity as writing proper is, and, frankly, necessary for longer works.
And it's okay to throw ideas away. The kernel of the story might change, that's fine. Put some ideas down on paper, plan a story out. Give yourself an outline: Now that you've got some ideas, no matter how simple they seem (dude rides a bus), start thinking about the story in terms of composition. Think about the characters and the plot first: who is this dude riding the bus, and what is the climax. What does the story MEAN? What could I say about dude on the bus? Maybe I want to talk about poverty in America. Okay, dude rides a bus all day because he has nowhere to go.
Criticize your own ideas, and find solutions. There's no way they'd let the dude ride the bus all day! They'd kick him off. Unless he bought a pass. Why spend money on a pass? Why not on booze? Oh, he must have a reason. Because it's hot. That's obvious, right? So a homeless guy buys a monthly pass and rides the bus all day so he can get out of the heat.
Now I have a character and plot intertwined. He has a logic that I can follow, I can understand his method of thinking just by his solution to the problem of the heat in the city.
And, the UNwriter will soon find that he or she's developing a story.
So, that's my advice on type one writers block, for the UNwriter that can't seem to come up with anything to write about. Stop trying to write and start planning to. Put your mind to work. Take anything that comes to mind and start trying to craft a story out of it, not by writing, but by planning, drafting, outlining. Make Venn Diagrams, or bulleted lists, or whatever works for you, or little paragraphs, whatever works for you.
Don't just sit in front of the word processor and try to force yourself to come up with an interesting premise from whole cloth. Stop trying so hard and start just imagining things to write, and embrace them, because seriously, basically anything will work. That's how I do it.
THE SECOND TYPE OF BLOCK is when you don't know what happens NEXT in whatever you are writing. This one is super annoying. If this is what you've got right now, I'm sorry, I feel you, man. It's just so painful.
This too has some variations: Sometimes you’ll find you’ve written yourself into a corner. The plot, situation, or characters refuse to follow the outline, or cause an abrupt end to the narrative, or anything like that. Sometimes you just don't know how to get from A to B. This is the hardest version of 'don't know what happens next' block, which is the only proper version of the term 'writer's block,' in my humble opinion.
The only advice for when you've written yourself into a corner is this: Stop whining. You've made a lot of work for yourself, haven't you. Go back, select the source of the problem, and press DELETE. Brutal, right? Don't want to do that? You're going to have to put in the work.
Close the word processor, get out a notebook, and write any possibility that come to mind, and scrutinize these ideas. Tear them down. Get rid of the bad ones. A lot of beginning writers think that the act of writing is some sort of genius/magic: It isn't. It's work. Hard work. Exhausting work. You're going to have to sit there and write a bunch of ideas down and then tear them apart. You’re going to be frustrated. You're going to have to examine solutions, then examine the results of those solutions. You're going to have to stomp around the house a bit.
Don't just shrug your shoulders and say "I can't think of what happens next! Oh woe is me, where is my creative muse. YOU DON'T HAVE A MUSE! You've got your brain. That's it. You may have to do research. You may have to write several pages of possible plot ONLY TO CROSS IT ALL OUT. You may have to READ THE WHOLE THING AGAIN. TWICE. Maybe, as luck would have it, buried in the earlier pages there is a tiny little bit of information that could cause the plot to move forward. Maybe there isn't. Maybe you'll have to go back in and rewrite the fifth page so that the thirtieth can happen. But it's work. Hard work.
I mean it when I say this is the worst kind of writing block, because it's the one that reminds you that writing is not easy, that it is not necessarily 'Fun,' that sometimes you've got to approach writing exactly like any other life problem: with conscious analysis of the options. It's a chore, but if you're going to be successful, you've got to do it. GET TO WORK.
THE BEST TYPE OF WRITER’S BLOCK is when you just aren't 'Feeling' creative, as in, you know what you want to write, and how you want to write it, but you just don't want to. That's fine. The solution: DON'T WRITE. If you feel mentally unable to write, then don't write. It's as simple as that.
When I find myself in this situation, but I want to do something that makes me feel better about not writing, I do the things I should be doing anyway, for example, I read a book with a critical eye. Thoughtful reading can do wonders for one’s sense of creativity.
Pay attention to the language, the manner in which the author introduces information, the way they shape their dialogue. It can be especially fun and insightful to examine a book you’ve already read, where you are familiar with the plot already. Think of it as honing your craft. By being thoughtful of the structure and style of a story, you engrain your own mind, and therefore your own writing, with a “bag of Tricks,” tools and tropes that could be useful or insightful for your own creative endeavors.
It doesn’t have to be writing, either: thoughtful, critical viewing of movies or TV shows, works just as well.
Often, when watching a movie, my mind starts to dwell on how I would tell the story differently, or how I would modify the plot to be more insightful, or more intense, or simply better. I like to carefully examine the construction of narrative art and determine which elements work and which feel sloppy, which I could borrow/adapt, and which I will add to my bucket of cardinal sins.
Eventually, all this literary analysis sparks my own creativity. I find myself moving from analysis of someone else’s art, to analysis of my own. I can discover errors in my writing, or sloppy clichés and tropes, or cut corners, or bad dialogue, etc. Soon, I’m itching to fix the problems, and before I know it, I’m in front of the computer, typing away.
WHEN I HEAR ARTISTS TALKING about 'writer's block,' what I usually discover is that they simply aren't willing to put in the work. As I said earlier, a lot of novice writers think there is such a thing as a MUSE, that just because a person declares themselves a writer they have some sort of magic gift that allows them to come up with great ideas out of nowhere. It just doesn't work that way. If it did, writers would all be millionaires, having made fortunes in a field other than writing. No one is a 'Genius,' or rather, Genius comes from hard work and dedication.
In a nutshell: When you are feeling creatively drained, stop trying so hard, stop trying to magically produce pages of writing, and start doing the work. Start 'crafting.' Start 'story-boarding.' Fill a notebook (or word processor page) with ideas. Don't "free-write." DON'T RELY ON THE MUSE.