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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Writer's Block

Writers Block, a quick search of google brings up.....frig google who cares. When it hits one person that person feels devastated who then questions his or her abilities, motivation, and current project. Days and weeks are wasted in a cycle of self hatred and outrageous expectations. Here are a few tips I've found through my own practice and through teaching that may be of use in preventing and getting out of writer's block.

1.) Work every day. Writing makes you want to write more. It doesn't matter what you write, just sit down and start on whatever interests you. Read the first chapter of Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit (it's online and it's not worth buying the whole thing). She echos this attitude. Ten minutes a day is a good start.
2.) There has never been a child prodigy in writing. Talent in writing is learned through experience and hard work. Recent brain studies show that younger people are deathly focused on one thing, while older people have a broader view with more associations -- just what writers need! Don't email me with names of kids who published like that dragon boy. It's crappy writing.
3.) Work on more than one project at once. Putting all ones commas in one basket means when the writing does not flow the whole process shuts down.
4.) Write when you can and when you have to. My own writing times change, sometimes I'm up early whipping out words, other times it's half the night. Go with the flow as much as possible. But, don't allow yourself not to write.
5.) Reward yourself. Promise if you write you will get a glass of juice or more coffee or a candy bar. It's probably primal brain stuff but it's amazing how well it works.
6.) Keep reading. Read what you like and also read to challenge yourself. John Metcalf says he reads poetry when writing prose. Reading expands your horizon. Reading gives you ideas and makes you want to write.
7.) Give up all those self help writing books and magazines. They make you feel worthless and they suggest little tricks will make your stuff brilliant but which don't really work in practice. Instead read real literary magazines and good books, learn from them. Read bad books too, once in a while, to see where the train really derails. The goal is for you to develop your own critical/analytical abilities.
8.) If your writer's block persists, seriously ask yourself if you want to write. Writing is terribly hard and just plain terrible. There's little fun, we do it alone. It even sucks when we're on a roll. But still we keep at it. If you don't get off on this type of self chosen torture, maybe you need to create in a different way. Other people my see their block related to larger life issues. They may require therapy to move past something or they may need medication for chemical depression. None of these are sins, they are levels of acceptance and awareness.
9.) Friends are friends, readers of drafts are readers. Don't mix them up. Get the best writer you can to read your work to offer feedback on the drafts. Friends don't have the knowledge and experience for this but they'll want to see their name first in the credits.
10.) Writing groups can be useful but they're mostly great levelers. Members offer uninformed opinions, they tend to shy away from extremes, they play it safe, the tone suffers from ugly group dynamics. You need a dynamic group leader who recognizes these issues, whose expertise is in motivating each person on their own track, and who supports your experimentation, who in fact helps you learn to contextualize and defend your experiments in light of group norms.

When a writers block hits, it's as though the world has closed up. For some writers the block can last months. The following tricks will help break the block.
1.) Recognize if you've been working particularly hard that you may need a complete break. Richard Ford takes a year off after publishing a book before he jumps into a new project. Take the time, don't read, don't write. Or read and don't write. Try naked bowling.
2.) Clean your work area and make a decision that you will begin to write.
3.) Sit down and free write for a certain amount of time, no excuses. Read Peter Elbow's books on free writing if you don't know what I mean. Do not judge your writing at this point. The goal is to write.
4.) Stop working on the big project for a while, allow many others to start in the form of notes. This means...
5.) Stop judging your work for a while. I think most blocks come from either a fear of not succeeding or of being over critical about what we are doing. The goal is to find freedom and joy in the process again. If you're worried about keeping your critical skills sharp write a review of another writer's work, or read some non fiction. Clive James has some nice critical essays in this regard.
6.) Stop rushing toward closure. Writers ruin their process by pressuring themselves to wrap up a project. Allow it to sit and ferment, to change and grow. The operative word is "allow". If you have a deadline, a class, for example, you may end up with a slightly ragged work, but if you've been steadily working and allowing it to grow, you will find more depth enters the work. Vladimir Horowitz, great pianist, made tons of faux notes while playing at Carnegie Hall, but the energy and interpretation more than carried the day.
7.) Turn off the negative thoughts. Sounds trite but when I talk to writers suffering from a block they describe themselves and their work extremely negatively saying things like: I can't do this, my work is terrible, even telling everyone they have writer's block. It becomes sort of self perpetuating. Stop worrying.
8.) Remember that Hemingway said all first drafts are shit. One of the greatest writers in the world. If he believes this we should too. In otherwords, take the pressure off yourself to make anything good.
9.) Allow your voice to be. What I mean is sometimes blocks come because we're trying to write "good" stuff or "literary" stuff when what we really need to be doing is just telling our story the way we need to tell it with our own voice. It may be an odd voice or one that most people don't like. So what.
10.) Write first, revise later. Don't mix this up unless your Anthony Burgess. Write as much and as fast as you can, have fun, play games, experiment. Do not judge. Only judge at a later point when the entire draft is done and you get into revision mode. To mix these up is a a recipe for writer's block.