Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Writer's Block

ALL WRITERS HAVE EXPERIENCED WRITER’S BLOCK at one time or another, especially the younger, less practiced writers that often struggle with day-jobs or school classes.  Among circles of writers one will commonly hear refrains of “I haven’t been feeling creative lately,” and “I don’t know what to write about.”  There is something mystical about not being able to write, something existential, or hard to define, and each writer has, it seems, their own conception of why they cannot write, why they cannot think “creatively,” or why the cannot think of anything to say.

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.

2.   PLOTblock

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.

3. LAZYblock

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.
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