Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - The Myth of Writer's Block (Part 2)

Last week the topic was not enough ideas - an empty jar.  Another common cause of what people like to call "Writer's Block" is its opposite.  Either way - the result is the same:  you sit down, and nothing comes out.

So let's go back to the funnel.

Have you ever tried to get jellybeans from one jar to another through a funnel?  You tip over the top jar and empty it into the funnel and the jellybeans manage to create a formation that completely stops the flow, blocks the opening, and still - empty jar - despite having tons of jellbeans!

So you kind of start over, shake the funnel, pick at the jellybeans - it's a painful process and you wonder what's so great about a funnel anyway.

Having too many things to say when you sit down to write is a lot like that clogged funnel.  What you want is a steady flow - a river of words - a lovely stream, and what you get is the Holland Tunnel at rush hour - nothing's moving.

Your brain might look a lot like that Lego picture up there - you trudging up and down in impossible directions, with no true North, no sense of where gravity lies, no silence in the chaos.

It's an extremely frustrating situation, however, it's not bad.  The more you sit down, the more ideas you get out of your life and into that jar - the less of a problem it's going to be.  This problem will remedy itself over time.

Too many ideas is the best possible problem - as long as you can handle them.

But you must start somewhere.  And I'm afraid to say it again, but that begins with sitting down.

If you need a way in - try this exercise:

- Write down all of you writing project ideas

- From those, choose 10

- Put the top 10 in order of most to least interested

- Look at your top 3

- Choose 1

- Write!

Now - this may not be enough for you.  It may be that you know your number 1 project is a novel and you know what the novel is about and you want very badly to write this novel and no other and you get stuck every time you start.  (Still - you should do the above exercise to make sure this is where your energy lies - you might have something else churning that wants attention.)

If you know exactly what you want to be writing, but are still not writing, then you're in the place where a coach can help, and yes, disclaimer, I do do this.

However, here are some things you can try yourself:

Don't get married to starting in a particular place - write what's on the top of your head.  Sometimes, people get obsessed with starting at the beginning and going forward, or mapping out the ending.  My advice, echoing Pema Chodron's book title is:  start where you are.  Just get it down - whatever it is, all of it.  Then - if it's not what you need to focus on, file it with a name that makes it easy to find again in a folder you will look at and move on.

This makes some writers uncomfortable; there is a nervousness about letting something go, or losing something en route.  In order to make gravy, my grandmother always skimmed the fat off the juices first.  Then she added her flour and mixed it all up in the pan with a fork.  So gravy was born, after that layer of fat was taken away.  She didn't lose anything - being a Depression Era child, she held onto the fat (in a tin coffee container) and used it for other things.  You're not losing anything by starting where you are - you're freeing up the good stuff, and saving the rest for possible use later.  Gravy.

Our brains are excellent parallel processors, but they do not have infinite capacity.  Brains get stuck on certain memes and create trails to and from them - it's how habits are formed, it's how technique and craft are created.  Don't let the brain's pecadillos choose what you are going to write and how your craft is going to form  -- YOU CHOOSE it.  Those little dancing droplets hanging out around your third eye write them down and send them on their way so you can focus on what you really want and need to say.

Write everything you know about it - If it's just an idea, if it's not all the way there, my advice is always to write every single thing you know about it.  If it started in a dream, write the dream out, write the way you felt when you woke up, write any colors you saw, anything you heard, write down the name of the song that haunts you in relation to it.  You can use research and put in links to images or sounds that will spark you.  I'm a big fan of Evernote for organizing these kinds of details; you might prefer Pinterest - but there are free tools out there for you - use them!  Once you've safely downloaded (from the physical world and from your brain) everything about this thing that is haunting you and wants to be written, but possibly isn't fully cooked, you can walk away and know that you can come back to it at any time and it will all be there for you.  The more detail you get down - the more easily you will spark the same neurons when you go back to it and be able to get right into the flow of the ideas once more.

Do an outline - if this is a large project, this is a great way to start.  Inspiration-based writers can find this to be a block.  (But we've already gotten debunked the persnickety concept of Inspiration, so why not have a go at it?)  The best things about an outline is that you're suddenly not forced to write the entire thing every time you sit down.  You can choose one item, write it, and go on about your day.  Tomorrow, choose another item.  (Your items might take longer than one writing session, but you get the idea.)

NOTHING is written in one draft, you will ALWAYS have to go back and work transitions and timelines, so writing out of order isn't sacrificing flow, or time spent writing.  Sometimes, though, it gives you signposts to the key scenes, big changes, or touchstones of a piece - it can be a powerful way to work.

Start with a writing exercise or prompt - One of my favorites came through The Constant Creator - Poetry for Character Development.  Basically, you write poems in a form about the characters in your piece.  It's great for backstory, but I've also pulled entire scenes out of this exercise.  This exercise works for fiction, screenplays and plays.  If you're writing something else, search the internet for writing prompts - you'd be surprised how many come up.

Write about 1 aspect of the project and let go - Start by writing a character bio, a description of a place in the piece, a meditation on the time period.  If you are writing non-fiction, try writing a mission statement:  why are you writing what you are about to write.  Keep going once you've gotten through this - more will come.

- Free write.  It's really the solution to so many problems.  Blank page - pen - and keep writing.  And yes - do this by hand!  If you need to, add music, or an image - some touchstone. If you use an image or music, keep in mind marrying it back to the topic at hand, the thing you'd like to write.

So get going.  While too many ideas often manifest as a blockage - I wouldn't term it Writer's Block.  That term has taken on a life over the course of its usage that points to a kind of paralysis only lifted by some Deus Ex Machina.  The term is loaded, and suggests something undiagnosable and big is going on somewhere in the writer's psyche preventing actual writing.  Anything that feels like Writer's Block needs more careful inspection - too few ideas, too many ideas - these are just a couple of the the causes.  We'll look at more as we go on - and remember, you are not alone.  Most of these are universal - occasional, temporary, but universal.

See you next week!

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

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