The Only Cure for Writer’s Block? Writing.

August 26, 2013

When I teach writing, I always tell people that the only cure for writer’s block is writing.

Now it’s time for me to buck up and follow my own advice.

I’ve read all the Dark Crystal books I can get my hands on, cover-to-cover, poring over the pictures and taking notes. I have enough bare bones to begin writing my contest entry. There’s no more excuse now for putting it off. Except that I’m intimidated.

The world of the Dark Crystal is lush and complex and ancient and, above all, visually stunning. A world meant for the eyes to devour. And capturing that same sense of awe and beauty in writing will be difficult, so difficult that the task of transforming a blank computer screen into something similar seems almost impossible.

But starting a new project always feels impossible. And by not writing, I’m not using the part of my brain that knows how to make those connections, that can break through writer’s block. There are things that can happen in your mind when you write that just won’t happen when you’re just thinking. That’s why writing through writer’s block works. It gets your mind engaged in the right way again, and even if you have to write pages of crap, usually in the midst of it there’s an “aha!” moment that you never would have uncovered if you just tried to solve the issue while washing dishes or walking the dog, staying in your mind, not using the tools that you will need to break through this wall. You can’t nail a board back onto the deck by just thinking about a hammer, and you can’t break through writer’s block by just thinking about it, either.

Mondays are my blogging days, which give me a reprieve. And tomorrow I blog for Young Adult Catholics. But on Wednesday morning, my task is clear: I will be writing my outline for the Dark Crystal’s Authorquest. Here’s hoping that will help my story “crystalize” enough to write those crucial 10,000 words.


Don’t Write Until You’re Excited?

September 17, 2012

The September 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest features an interview with Chris Cleave, author of the best-selling Little Bee. When asked for his advice to writers, he says this:

“Make sure you’re excited about your work. When you research a story, it should feel like life and death. And when you come to writing it, it should feel like, It will be devastating for me if I don’t make this story as exciting as I know it can be. You should get up every day and think, If I’m not super excited about the 2,000 words I’m going to do today, how can I make it so I am super excited? It should never feel like a chore. If it ever gets boring, the reader can tell. You need to put the pen down and change something, and not come back to the desk until you’re excited about the line or chapter you’re about to write.”

I always read Writer’s Digest with a pen in hand, and in the margins next to this paragraph, I drew a big question mark. I think I disagree with Chris on this one. While I think it’s definitely a good idea to try to psych yourself up and to get excited about what you’re going to write, and to examine your piece closely when it does start to bore you, I don’t think it’s safe to leave the work alone until you are excited about it. Nor do I think the reader can necessarily tell where your enthusiasm has waned. I’ve often had the rude awakening of reading back over work I wrote full of excitement and inspiration, only to find that it’s no better (and is sometimes even worse) than scenes I’ve written where each word felt like it had to be wrenched out of some quicksand pit in my mind to be put on the page.

It’s fairly common for writers to experience a “lull” mid-story, when the initial excitement has worn off and the momentum of the end being in sight hasn’t begun. One of the biggest challenges facing new writers is getting past this and finishing their stories. Many writers who lose their “excitement” over a work in progress end up starting something new that feels more exciting; until that one becomes boring, at which point there’s another new beginning; until soon you have file drawers full of half-finished manuscripts with none of them anywhere close to being ready to see the light of day.

So my modification of Chris’s advice would be this: If you’re not excited, see whether you can do something to get excited (brainstorm ideas in your planning notebook, take a walk to mull over your story, read over a scene that you’re really proud of, journal about what made you want to write this story in the first place). But if you can’t get excited, write anyway. The last thing we writers need is one more excuse to abandon our craft.

Another Day, Another Rejection

February 28, 2012

I received another rejection today for my young adult novel, and I have to say it’s my best rejection yet. Mary Kole’s response to my manuscript was both kind and encouraging — proof that agents are not heartless beasts searching for any reason to trash your work. (I never believed this, by the way, but I think it bears mentioning that an agent or editor can reject your work AND be a good person, just as your work can be rejected AND be good work.)   So, I was honestly more encouraged than dismayed at this most recent rejection, except that my work seemed to fit particularly well with what she was looking for. But, if she didn’t love it she didn’t love it, and now we can move on. Next up, March! (I haven’t yet decided what my March submission will be, but I have a long list of possibilities and it’s just a matter of zeroing on one). It helps to know that every time I submit something, I’m getting closer.

Today was my first session of the senior college class I’m teaching this year. I always start my writing classes with a few tools for busting writer’s block. Today, I had my students write without letting their pen stop for ten minutes; then followed that up with mapping; and then did free writing inspired by my collection of bizarre postcards. About a third of my students are repeats from last year, so I’m trying to vary things a little while still giving a solid foundation to the new students (and it’s nice to know those students who did return found the class worth taking again — many of them spoke highly of it during our introductions). At the end of the session, one of the new students who seemed unsure about what exactly he would write came up to me and said, “I never knew writing could be so fun!”

And that’s really step one toward any successful writing journey.

NaPoWriMo Tips

April 3, 2009

Despite my complaints, I’ve managed to write a poem a day for the first two days of N aPoWriMo. If you’re not so comfortable with outright cheating, here are a few ideas to help you break through writer’s block.

  1. Use magnetic poetry. Magnetic poetry actually takes me a lot longer to write than regular poetry, but it’s “easier” because the words are already there for me. If you don’t have any magnetic poetry, what better time than National Poetry Month to get some?
  2. Use fortune cookies, Dove chocolates, or other items with “words of wisdom.” My favorite way to write a fortune cookie poem is to line up the fortune either top to bottom or bottom to top, and then use each word to start that line of the poem. Others write the fortune at the top and write a poem about that idea.
  3. Write whatever you feel like writing . . . in stanzas. This is how I’ve been getting through my first two poems. At bedtime, I write in my journal as usual . . . except I’ve been using metaphors rather than plain speech, and I’ve been writing in stanzas. Just writing in stanzas seems to unlock the hidden poetry potential in a subject.
  4. Imitate a favorite (or not-so-favorite) poet’s style. To do this copy down a poem by this poet. Then, replace every one of her words with one of yours. Where she uses a verb, you use a verb; where she uses a noun, you use a noun. To be safe, you can use poems in the public domain, many of which are available here.
  5. Make it a point to experiment with different poetry forms such as the pantoum, the haiku, the limerick,  or the sonnet. (You can find lots of poetry types here).

I will try to post example poems following each of these 5 tips during April.

On Writing Spaces

January 12, 2009

Last week, my friend Jenny wrote about the importance of writing spaces — how objects from her past held her back, and how a thorough clean and “upgrade” of her space brought her face to face with a slight fear of success. (My interpretation; you can draw your own conclusions by reading the post here.)

I read A Room of One’s Own when I was in college, and I don’t remember whether Virginia Woolf’s thesis of women having less success as writers because they had less private space resonated with me then, but it definitely resonates with me now. It resonates with me so much that I used it when I was applying to live in the artists’ coop where I live–insisting that I needed a room of my own (I was renting a room from a rather rambunctious family at the time) to properly do my art.

Now that I’m “stranded” at my parents’ place longer than expected due to the accident, I’m finding it nearly impossible to write. In fact, I always find it nearly impossible to write when I’m here, but usually I just let it slide because I’m not usually here this long. It’s hard for me to believe that my life as a writer actually started here. But maybe that’s because back when I lived here, I did have my own space. Now, my options are my laptop on the dining room table, or the rather slow and virus-y desktop in my parents’ bedroom. Both places are fine for the short blurbs I write for work and for these blog posts. But they’re daunting places to sink into writing something as serious as fiction.

Still, I know I have to get past this roadblock, because I’m trying to write a short story and I’m on a deadline. But here’s the guilty truth: even though the list I posted last Friday looked so shiny, writing the start to my short story was like pulling teeth; I wrote just over 500 words in an hour (not a rate I’m impressed with), and I haven’t returned to it yet, despite firm resolve every night to pick it up again “in the morning.”

So while writing spaces are important — and while, by golly, we certainly deserve them! — we can’t let them become just one more excuse not to write. Because the truth is, Jane Austen wrote novels in her family’s sitting room. I wrote my first novel in my parents’ bedroom, where I’m writing this now. I’ve moved my desk around several times in my current apartment, and I’ve written novels on it in every place. I wrote novels huddled under my room-mate’s bunk in college; I even rewrote one novel and started another while rooming with the rambunctious family. I can certainly manage a short story at the dining room table.

WritingFix Saves the Day

December 22, 2008

It’s just a few days before Christmas, and I’ve discovered a new writing toy. Check out this nifty prompt generator for those days when inspiration just won’t come. I don’t love it quite as much as write or die, but it’s still a good tool to have at your disposal for the dreaded writers’ block.

Long Drives and Writing

December 18, 2008

So I did have to forgo my writers’ group tonight (they’re meeting and eating as I speak, the agony!), but in its place I got a long drive, which is one of God’s gifts to writers, along with

1) lawn-mowing

2) showering

3) walks in the woods

4) mindless jobs, like shoving brochures into newspapers all night

5) sleepless nights

6) sports you hate (OK, maybe that one’s not quite so universal — but replace it with ‘job you hate,’ ‘class you hate,’ and you’ll get the idea)

I think everything I’ve ever written has been originally conceived during one of those seven activities. Before I could drive, I got most of my ideas riding the school bus. A man in my writers group (that is meeting without me, alas!) says that when he’s got writers’ block, he goes for a walk, and by the time he gets back home, he knows what will happen. I write first thing in the morning, and if I feel convinced my brain is too empty for it, I take a shower. By the time I’m done, I’ve got a starting point.

There’s actually a science to this moving body + empty mind = creativity, but I’m having trouble articulating it here in my parents’ noisy kitchen. I’ll get back to you on it after a shower.