We've talked about the dreaded, yet fictional, Writers' Block and what might cause it. All that psychotherapy is great, but what you really wanna know is --- how to stop it. How to get the waters flowing. How to step out of your own way to create the novel, screenplay, epic slam poem, one-person show you truly want to create.
(Some of these are suggestions I've made before in previous posts, but for the sake of having helpful hints in one place...)
1. Start where you are. It's kinda zen, but also kinda unavoidable. You are where you are, in the state you are in. Every day you wake up, you are somewhere between your best and worst self. Even within that day, your moods, actions, and choices may vacillate between those points. As many self-help and spiritual gurus suggest that you stop waiting to live until you are your most perfect self, I'd like to suggest the same thing to you about writing. You don't need to wait until you are your best, most writerly self to write. Just write. Writing badly can be a powerful step in the progression to writing well. Start now. Be who you are today as you face the page.
2. Write it all out. Whether or not you are doing Morning Pages (which I so thoroughly recommend), writing it all out is a suggestion you can always use. Give yourself an hour or so. Put on music if you want - turn off the phone and the WiFi. Get a notebook. A pen. Write by hand. Write out every single thing that is bothering you, smothering you, every idea trying to get your attention while you are trying to write something else, every fear, every insecurity. Let it all boil over the top and spill it out. Feel free to burn it when you're finished. (But save those good ideas for later!) If you are feeling corked, it may have absolutely nothing to do with the thing you are writing - find out.
3. Monster up. You've got a monster in your box. The project you are committing to, while simultaneously not committing, is the monster. The box is the file you keep it in. The box is the brain it is stuck in. The box is the dark corner. The monster is hiding there. You need to court this monster. You need to stare down this monster. You need to play possum with this monster. You need to call this monster a coward. You need to monster up. The story is the monster - you are the monster. Why do you think we have so many monster stories? Archetypes from Frankenstein to Jekyll and Hyde are there so you can see that you are not alone in your monster! My suggestion is use the tool as a weapon - write the monster into the light. If you feel blocked turning the beast into a beauty, then write the beast. Every last snarling, drooling detail of it. Draw a picture of the monster. Visualize the monster. Then like Arthur wielding Excalibur, slay the monster.
4. Pin it down. You know what you want to put off writing today, but tomorrow you want to put off writing something else. Make a choice. You dip your toe in, then pull back. You are going to have to get in the water at some point, or you are going to have to give up. Here's an exercise that will help you locate your most powerful energy right now (what some might term passion):
- Write down all of your writing project ideas
- From that list, choose 10 (If you have less than 10, well, skip this step!)
- Put those top 10 (or fewer) choices in order of most- to least-interested at this moment
- Look at your top 3
- Chose 1
- What is keeping me from writing this screenplay/novel/play/poem/article...?
- What do I most fear about the writing process for this piece?
- What is my deepest hope for this piece?
- What skills do I wish I had in writing this?
- What can I do to make myself the right person to write this?
- What is the one image I have that is the center of this piece?
- What is the one scene, chapter, paragraph, sentence I feel must be part of this piece?
- What is the core element of this piece that makes it so important for me to write it?
- If this piece were a city, what city would it be?
- If I could take this story out to a restaurant and sit it down to talk to it, where would I take it?
- What ride at Disneyland most closely resembles this piece?
The questions don't even all need to make sense - in fact - it can be more helpful if they don't!
Answering questions about characters is a great way back into the process. Make a list of at least 10, but up to 100 questions you might ask about a person. For example:
- How old is he/she?
- Where was he/she born?
- What is his/her favorite song?
- Did he/she go to college? What did he/she major in?
- What is his/her credit rating? rent? mortgage payment?
- What is his/her favorite color?
- Has he/she ever been sailing? fishing? shooting?
- Is he/she afraid to fly?
- What songs on his/her iPod?
You can include all the vital statistics in these questions - how old, star sign, address, weight, height, eye color - and non-vital ones - favorite animal, kindergarten teacher's name. Get a list of questions - the longer, the better. Then, answer them. For each main character in your piece. (If you are your main character, do it anyway - the you in your piece is not you, exactly, it is an alter-ego - your Jekyll or Hyde - so let it breathe a little.)
You can answer all questions for all characters, you can answer the first 10 questions for your protagonist, and the next 10 for the antagonist and so on, if you have a really long list. But these questions and answers are going to help you make the characters into living, breathing people. They are going to make you pin down things you already know, and give you details that will make your characters specific.
Details and specifics are friends of the writer - those quirks might suggest whole scenes, raise conflict, and solve narrative problems. This exercise also gets rid of the icky backstory problem. Once you know your character this well, you are free to leave out a lot of details, instead of feeling compelled to try telling your story through expositional backstory. It's like lifting a weight - you suddenly have the answers, so you are free to disregard them and only use the ones that serve the narrative. If you like, you can use the answers to the questions to begin constructing a bio for each character - just don't dance too much around the issue, which is getting back to writing the actual project.
Make up your own questions - about the world you are writing about, about the decision points in the story, about what you want to share with an audience. Answer them. (This can be a great exercise to do verbally with a buddy, or in a writing group, too.)
Use questions as a way back to the writing process; let the answers suggest a place to dive in.
6. Visualize. If the verbal, literal and linguistic are bugging you --- give them a rest! Get visual. Get magazines - tons - and cut out pictures that suggest the world, tone, style, mood of your piece. Make a collage of the images. Put it up where you can daydream into it while you are writing. Join Pinterest - set up a board for the project with anything you find online that sparks - anything you might not want to forget from a quote to an image, to the actor you want to play the lead role. Near where you write, keep the inspiration, the seed, of this project close - an image of a loved one who is the basis for a character, a picture of a landscape where the story takes place, the quote that sparked the whole thing. Watch movies and shows that have the feel of your piece. Translate your piece into a great work of art - who does it feel like - Picasso, Dali, Rothko, Basquiat, O'Keeffe? Find images from masters that represent the feel you are hoping to create.
Is your main character a bartender? Have you ever mixed a drink? Take a bartending class. Are you writing a science fiction story? Keep up to date with developments in science by reading journals, and the Science Times on Tuesdays in the New York Times.
Research yields pithy little details that will make your writing more real. It might create anecdotes that you can use in your story. Tools like Pinterest and Evernote can help you collect the pieces you find online, but don't forget about collecting real life material - examples, stories, experience. Are there people around who have experience directly connected to your story? Take them out for coffee and let them talk to you about it. Life is out there and life is the source of whatever you're writing. So don't hide from it - find out what you need to know to make your writing real. Hunt it down and gather it up, then let it percolate through you into images, events, and scenes.
8. Utilize powerful procrastination. None of this namby-pamby, wash the dishes, do the laundry sh^t. I'm talking SERIOUS procrastination. Forbid yourself to write - for a day - for a week. Take yourself on a day trip - to a museum, a movie, take a hike, a bike ride, go to the ballet, take a dance class, go to a concert. Go away for a weekend. Give up. Give in. If it's not going to hit, then fill yourself up with something else. Ignore the writing. Defy it to show up in your life. Dare it to come knocking on your door looking for some break-up booty call.
9. Get creative! These suggestions are just the beginning. There are scores of ways you can get yourself back into the game. Make a playlist for the project. Put it on and listen to it. If you're an outline person, do an outline. If you're not an outline person, start one anyway, putting in everything you already know and leaving space for what you don't.
Customize these suggestions and the ones you find elsewhere to make them work for you. And not only for you, but you in this moment, working on this project.
Give yourself the task of creating new writing prompts. Give yourself the task of starting by describing the locations or settings for your project. Tasks are key - they make the landscape less sprawling - give you inroads to the story and the elusive elements you are cultivating that will eventually give your work a transcendent, universal, or mythical level. While you're at it - don't worry about the transcendent, mythical level while you're writing - it will only mess up your head. There's plenty of time to worry about that in edits and revisions. Focus on the small picture now - it will take you farther.
10. Get help. Have you ever taken a writing class? If not - then maybe it's time! There are a tremendous number of classes available geographically and virtually in all price ranges (scroll down for resources after clicking the link!). Build your skills and tools so you don't feel like you're drowning every time you sit down.
Another option - join a Writing Group. It's a great way to mitigate the loneliness of writing, get social and get feedback. Maybe you're not the writing group type - if you are - great! Get into one; start one; find one.
Find a buddy. Your buddy doesn't even have to be a writer or a reader. Someone you trust, who you'll feel comfortable checking in with about your progress, and someone you can be honest with is much more important than whether they are also in the throes of writing. You need to feel responsible to them, but not beholden. It's great if they also need you to check in with them on their goals - then it's reciprocal and accountable. You are alone, but then again, you're not. Don't get so deep in that you forget there's a world out there!
Use the internet! Google "writing prompts" and articles on writing - you'll find some valuable tips and ways to get going!
Get a coach. I do writing consulting and coaching, but I still think there is a lot of work you can do on your own before hitting up someone like me.
If you're really feeling pent up, tied down, press play and let Florence help you shake it out. Dancing recommended.
If none of this makes you want to write, or get back to the writing at hand, there's one thing to think about. Maybe you're not a writer. I'm not saying that you can't write, or even that you shouldn't write. I'm saying that maybe it's writing that you aren't responding to. Maybe you have a story idea, but what you really want is to be able to play the villain in that story once it's done. Maybe you want to write the score to it. Maybe you want to paint the scene you see in your head.
Writing is an art people gravitate to for a lot of reasons - it's got a slightly twisted, yet romantic reputation, it seems really accessible, it seems like it doesn't take much work or practice. It's an easy-entry art, but not one that is easily cultivated. To become excellent at the craft of writing takes as much work as it takes to be a great quarterback or an astronaut or a software programmer - yet we don't have a playbook, a set of rules to function in zero gravity, or a perfect textbook to follow.
Ask yourself if this is how you want to express yourself creatively - is this idea you are hounding a written idea - maybe it's an opera, a circus show, a painting, a song. Maybe you need a collaborator to bring the words, because what you are interested in is something else. Don't be afraid to ask this question. You could be beating yourself over the head for a long while if you don't. Don't tell yourself that everyone can write, so you just need to work harder, and therefore miss the inner voice that's telling you to sing, or design beautiful buildings, or join Cirque Du Soleil!
If the answer to the question is no - then go find your true creative path and pursue it doggedly. If the answer to the question is yes, or you are in a position where the answer is no, but the reality is yes (like finishing your PhD thesis), I'm afraid you should just go back to Step 1 and proceed back down the list...
(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.)