Monthly Archives: April 2014

Five Principles to Combat Writer’s Block

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Everyone experiences writer’s block at one time or another. Some experience it only for a few minutes, some for years at a time. The resistance to writing can get particularly strong when you sit down to write about painful autobiographical events.

I have quit writing hundreds of times. But not long ago I had a breakthrough. The blocks melted away and I wrote daily for a period of three years producing my second novel, all while raising a child and working full time. It was such a euphoric and long-lasting revelation, and such a shift from my previous m.o. that I wrote down the principles that enabled me to keep writing so that I could revisit them when the resistance built up again, as it inevitably does.

I’ll be presenting this and more with Dave Kalish this Saturday in our GrubStreet Muse and the Marketplace session, “How to Turn Personal Tragedy into Entertaining Fiction.”  For more info click here and in the drop down menu select A La Carte Session A and scroll down to Option 4.

Meanwhile, here are the 5 principles absolutely free, a gift from me to you. Please leave a comment if they help.

Principle One: Write only because you want to and because it brings you joy.Don’t try to be brilliant or marketable, or meaningful. Write only because you want to. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You don’t need to pass a writing test. You don’t need to be useful. When you really want to write and write what you really want, it may turn out to be brilliant or marketable or meaningful, but if you set out with that goal, more often than not, it will lower your enjoyment, which will lower your drive to write. This principle can be applied to all things in life. Joy and desire are the linchpins of the universe. They provide the energy to create.

 Principle Two: Create a well-protected space for rough drafts. First writings are tender and can only occur in a well-protected space – a space that is safe from all criticism and all demands, both internal and external. This builds the first principle. Writing that stems from a desire to be great, or a desire to find god, or a desire to teach a lesson is already under pressure. Let go of all demands and pressure. For this reason, I also would not recommend soliciting publishers before the book is finished. Rejection may discourage you from finishing, and acceptance may create too much pressure to enjoy the writing. Protect yourself in these early stages. Write what you want and trust that it is needed, even if you can’t see how.

Corollary A: Warm up before you write. Never launch right into something unless inspired – it’s too much pressure. Generally, inspiration has to be cultivated gently and without pressure, by writing other things first. A journal is a good warm-up, either a personal journal or a writing journal where you state your intentions for that session…or work out a problem…or, if generating material, do a writing exercise. I find journaling works better when beginning a piece. When I’m well on my way, I can warm up by editing the previous day’s work.

Corollary B: Choose carefully when and to whom you show your writing. In the early stages generating stages, show it only to a trusted few, and be clear about what you want from them. If you want only positive feedback, ask for that. When you get to your later drafts, you will have to suck up some courage and show to a wider audience and withstand the storm of self-doubt that this will bring. But in the beginning, give your work over only into the gentlest of care.

Corollary C: Choose a subject that springs from your core concerns, values, or challenges.You know you have found the right subject when you have a lot to write about it. If it isn’t flowing, perhaps the subject isn’t right – isn’t of real interest and joy to you (springs from a false desire to impress or be smart or teach). Find the subject that is intrinsic to your very core and write about that. Write about a topic that you need to write about. Write to bring it to life. I think my second novel generated itself fairly easily because I was writing about something that I’d thought about all my life: death and what happens after. I also wrote the character I needed to be and this helped me write past blocks. Every once in a while I would struggle with whether I should do research (pursue analytic thought) or trust my intuition. My character had to learn to rely on her own intuition as well, so I took a cue from her. I wrote good medicine for myself. Joy Harjo once said that she writes a poem to heal something, like a sore throat or a broken heart. As long as that motive doesn’t weigh you down, go for it.

Corollary E: Imagine an audience you feel comfortable writing for. If it isn’t flowing, perhaps the audience isn’t right. Try writing a paragraph for different audiences, an audience of children, teenagers, all women, all men, all African Americans. As you try this out, pay attention to your energy. When your writing starts to pick up speed and spill out easily, that’s how you know you’ve found the right audience. Again, forget about marketability – the goal is to get it out, not get it published.

Corollary F: Choose the narrative voice that excites you. If it isn’t flowing, maybe the narrator needs to be older, younger or someone else. Try a few paragraphs in some different points of views and then trust yourself.

Example: I when went from third to first person, I found a sixteen year old voice that I loved. Then asked myself if it would be more interesting or sophisticated if I wrote in an older voice at a greater distance from the events. Immediately, my energy slumped. In the past, I might have agonized about which way to go. But in this new unblocked place, I stopped intellectualizing and took my energy level as my cue. Joseph Campbell wrote “follow your bliss.” Another way to think of it is follow your energy surges.

Principle Three: If you can’t write it, write about it.When you feel blocked or nervous about approaching some aspect, write about what you want to achieve. If you ask yourself questions, the answers will come. Sometimes they don’t come right away. Sometimes you have to carry the question around and think about it while you go on walks or do chores. When you do this, it is VERY important to turn the critical voice into a visionary or goal-setting voice. Instead of writing, “Why can’t I write dialogue?” ask “Where can I get help on writing dialogue?”  Instead of writing, “I’m don’t know how to end this thing,” write, “I want this novel to end with a rich image and just a whiff of mystery.” The more you describe the way you want to write, the more likely you are to slide right into doing it without even noticing. This is great a parenting technique—tell your kid what to do rather than what not to do. Works well in relationships, too.

Principle Four: Listen to the writing block. Even the writing blocks are telling you something important about your writing… And no, they’re not telling you to stop writing. I’ve spent years berating myself every time I got blocked – “See, you’re not a writer. You’re f-d up.” That was just a distraction. Lately, when I get blocked, I think, “Something about what you are doing is bothering you. There’s a problem that you need to work out.” Then see Principle Three, if you can’t write it write about it. Sometimes you can work it out just by writing, “What is bothering me about this?” Here’s an example. I was trying to write a character sketch on my main character in first person, but suddenly everything went flat. This told me that she was more private than I thought – especially when she thought she was being evaluated. So I abandoned the sketch.

Other Suggestions:

  • When the writing goes flat, it may indicate that this scene could be summarized. Listen to the voice that says, this is boring, I want to get to the good stuff. Go ahead. Skip this part. Writing is like magic. Want time to pass? Write, “Three years later….”  and voila! Get right to the good stuff…don’t torture yourself. Maybe it’s flat because the reader doesn’t need this kind of detail either. Summarize it and move on. You can always go back and fill in the gaps later if you need to.
  • Is it flat because you are scared of it – scared you can’t live up to the drama of the moment? Well…either wait until you feel inspired and work on something else…or rough it out and come back to it later.
  • Is it flat because you need to start the story in a new place?

Principle Five: Trust your process. Trust your outcome. Or, work on what you feel like working on when you feel like working on it.When I began my second novel, I started by inventing my own theory about ghosts. I didn’t even have a plot. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. But I was so into writing that. Later I was glad it was written, because I didn’t want to write it. It had become boring. Instead I was all about plot. The novel doesn’t have to be written in order. Jump to the scenes that interest you when they occur to you. I wrote the climax right after I wrote the opening paragraphs, because the inspiration struck. Later, as I approached the end of the novel, I became more and more worried about whether I could pull off the ending. When I finally came to it, I re-read the climax I had written almost a year before. I ended up revising it, but that first draft gave me the courage to hammer out a new ending.

Corollary A: Digressions are maps. Even if you are writing things that are digressions or not that interesting as scenes, write them anyway, because you need to write them in order to understand your plot or your character. You can always take them out later.

Corollary B: Bad writing leads to good writing, or it’s good enough in and of itself. Even if you are writing sentimental, schlocky crap, trust that you need to write it this way to get to the good stuff, or else that there is a valid place in the world for sentimental, schlocky crap, and your job is to supply it.

Corollary C: Give it time to rise. When you make bread, you never just mix the ingredients and put it in the oven. You give it time to rise. Likewise, there comes a point in all writing where you have to take a break. You get too close to it; you can’t see it. No writing is finished until you’ve rested, forgotten about and returned to it with fresh eyes. When you finish the first or second draft, you may think it’s perfect, or you may think something isn’t right about it, but you can’t tell what. Take a break. Put it down and don’t re-read it for long period of time, a week, a month, a year, maybe more. When you come back to it, you will be amazed at how clearly you see what it lacks and what it needs.

All of the above works better if you accept the following philosophical underpinnings loosely borrowed from Buddhist thought:

  • We each have the brilliance of the universe inside us, since we are made of it. We just need to get out of our own way.
  • When connected to ourselves in a balanced way, the world benefits from us, if only in a very small way.
  • We each have a gift to give, and no matter how small, it is essential that we give it.

Good luck, and keep the faith.

P.S. Since I wrote this article I’ve found two books very helpful:

Around the Writers Block by Roseanne Bane and The Seven Secrets of the Prolific by Hilary Rettig.

Use the Random to Write

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510-playing-cards-randomI read a poem in a magazine recently by someone famous who shall remain nameless, and it made absolutely no sense. Each line/image seemed random and unrelated to the next.  He/she then wrote an explanation of what the poem meant or what life experience it rose from, and again, it seemed to have nothing to do with the poem.  What a great writing prompt, I thought.  So here it is:

Write ten random sentences. Just look around you and write down ten thoughts that occur as you look. Be sure to get something concrete/physical/visual in each line.  Or if you’ve been writing in the same spot for 100 years and are sick of your surroundings, pick ten random lines from 10 different poems by other people. If you happen to miss-read the lines, even better.

Then write a preposterous explanation of what it all means.  Or, if you like, somehow fashion these 10 lines into a coherent piece, changing them all to make them your own, of course.

This exercise has never failed to generate new material for me. Hope it does the same for you.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Anti-Fantasy, Brilliant Concept, Slow Going

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Magicians PhotoEver wished to be in a Harry Potter novel? Lev Grossman  explores the downsides of that wish in his anti-fantasy novel, The Magicians (Plume 2009). Magic turns out to be more boring, more complex and less uplifting than anyone might have hoped. And to its credit, when the violence in this novel occurs, (what little there is), you cringe, reminding you that, no, you really DON’T want to be Harry Potter fighting Voldemort.

What makes the book brilliant, is its meditation on the nature and purpose of magic: “‘Use magic in anger,’ warns the dean of the magical college where Quentin Coldwater and his friends train, ‘and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells … if you lose control of them, they will change you'” (88).

Later, the novel expounds on the danger of magic from a different angle, when the Quentin is undergoing the final college trial, traveling 500 miles to the south pole with nothing to protect him but magic. Having created a bubble of warmth around himself and added strength and speed to his legs, he cruises endless snow, remembering another teacher’s advice: “Once you reach a certain level of fluency as a spellcaster, you will begin to manipulate reality freely … your spells will one day come … almost automatically, but with very little in the way of conscious effort…For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire it, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a mad man I that respect. It takes a very clear head and a very strong will to operate once you are in that place” (161). The fantastical concept of magic stems from the real power of naming and speech, which can make present that which is absent, and Grossman identifies this core truth here.

What follows is a beautiful passage, “The stars burned shrilly overhead with impossible force and beauty. Quentin jogged with his head up, knees high no longer feeling anything below his waist, gloriously isolated, lost in the spectacle. He became nothing, a running wraith, a wisp of warm flesh in a silent universe of midnight frost” (162).

These kinds of passages compelled me to stay with the book. But my progress was made torturous by Quentin’s blockheadedness and the shallowness of his friends. Aptly named Coldwater, Quentin pours cold water on everything. While we can all relate to his search for happiness, I kept hoping he would figure out that happiness isn’t the point of life; it’s a poor substitute for fulfillment, the occasional side effect of living a life of purpose, which, according to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, is an inherent need.

But neither Quentin nor any of his friends develop any sense of purpose. Not one of them ever says to themselves, “Gee, maybe I could make the world a better place with this tool.” It’s downright odd. The only characters who come close, Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, and his non-friend, Penny, get punished. Alice, by far the best character in the book, ends up with a bit part.

I’m not exactly criticizing the book for this, because Grossman made me care, and though it was slow, I was willing to flog myself to finish it and felt bereft when it was over. (The flog-marks are fading, thank you very much.)

So I’d say Grossman’s novel, the first of a trilogy, does what the best books do, re-defining and deepening its genre. But he uses too many adjectives (hint from a reformed adjective addict, don’t use more than one per noun on a regular basis). Also, we don’t need to see the main character going over the same ground 25 times.

“Death’s Debut” in April Issue of Eclectica Magazine

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“That’s when Death decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. The idea reverberated with rightness. This laughter thing was invented by humans, completely unforeseen by God. Immortals didn’t get it. That’s why he had to, because, a good joke was like a thunderclap, a convulsion of life and death coming together in perfect balance, a hybrid.”

I’m delighted to announce that my story, “Death’s Debut” appears in this month’s issue in Eclectica Magazine at eclectica.org. I hope you’ll check it out along with all the other excellent stories and poems published there. I’m proud to be published along side them.

The idea for the story came from three sources, watching my 91 year old father “rage against the dying of the light,” a book by Steve Martin called  The Ten, Make that Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make that Ten, and a folktale called “Death in a Nut” collected by Duncan and Linda Williamson from the Traveling People of Scotland. In this last story, a boy called Jack stuffs death in a nut and throws him out to sea to prevent him from carting off his mother. Chaos ensues. The idea that death might want to become a comedian was entirely my own.

My father curses when he can’t buckle his belt, or cut his food with a fork, or find the word for computer. “What the devil’s the matter with me?” he says.

“When I can’t find words, I wave my hands around like this,” I say. “Try it. It’s kind of fun.” Sometimes in my writing group (all women of a certain age) we all just wave our arms at each other.

Most days, the only silver lining of old age appears to be what little hair is left on my father’s head.

Fight fire with fire, mystery with mystery, death with laughter, I say. That’s why I wrote the story.  I hope that one day, when death comes a knockin’, we’ll all be able to welcome him like a long lost friend.