Driving around the Writer’s Block

So here I am at work staring at a blank Word document while my schedule goes from blue—filled with clients—to white—abandoned and alone. Ordinarily I would simply write, but my brain is empty. I have written at least a hundred pages of my novel and don’t really know how to get over the middle hump—ALWAYS my problem with every novel I have ever tried to write.

I suspect I’ll just skip several weeks and attack some of the scenes I do sort of know what will happen in—is that sentence even English? Outline the third wedding and some of the anniversary party, hope that inspiration will strike or my characters will have interesting conversations and mention something they have been working on or I don’t even know, anything.

That Poem about the Quokka

A friend in need, Mike Allegra, heylookawriterfellow, recently gave me a writing topic when I was sore in need of ideas. He wrote, “Aw! Blockage stinks. But I’m here to help; write about quokkas. You’re welcome.” I had never heard of these, but when I Googled it, here is the picture that looked back at me.

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The kangaroo’s cousin, cute little quokka

With teddy bear eyes and a winning small smile,

Nicely nocturnal you feed on the seedpods,

Leaves and soft bark by the light of the moon.

 

Quick! Make a wish! A big steaming mocha

Or peppermint muffins stacked up in a pile:

Some sign that you haven’t been mocked by the food gods.

The Nightblooming Rainbow will bring it right soon.

Another Poem Commemorating My Writer’s Block

The block on my desk, gargantuan piece of

Imaginary marble, streaked through with veins

Of imperial purple to show the unwary

 

Just how important! how crucial! such a lack

Of ideas can be to a quarry artist, to a master builder,

To a poet with a tiny little bit of vacations time

 

On her hands and absolutely no topics

For potential discussion. Such is the way of the rhinocerous-

Skinned writer. Cut yourself. Write truth in blood.

Narratives for Survival #1

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So I found this meme on Facebook the other day, not long after Umberto Eco’s death, and I thought that it might just kick my writer’s block in the pants. “To survive, you must tell stories.” I tend to look at this blog as a “platform” for my books of poetry that I am going to be publishing in the next few years, a way to “build an audience,” and I imagine that many of my readers who are also bloggers feel a similar way.

But I often get dragged off course, usually by popular culture narratives with kickass women characters who lead, make choices and decisions, fight, kill, deal with the trauma, and work to balance the things and people they love with the things and people they have to deal with in often less than loving ways. These are the narratives I am magnetically drawn to.

Clearly, they are not the only important narratives. I have a shelf of books on World War II and the Holocaust because memory and testimony are crucial types of narratives for survival. I don’t write about these much because I don’t have firsthand knowledge, but I am going to be giving my writing students a speech by Elie Wiesel to read because they might take his thoughts on “The Perils of Indifference” better than they would take such thoughts from me.

There are also meta-stories: stories about how stories affected you, as we often hear when we start talking about representation in popular culture narratives. So Whoopi Goldberg has often talked about the galvanizing affect seeing Nichelle Nichols playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek had on her when she was a little girl, suddenly realizing that a black woman could be a leader rather than just a servant. So clearly it is just as important to consider how we tell the stories we tell.

But there are other narratives too, the stories we tell ourselves when we are too tired to do the laundry or too hopeless to fall asleep at three in the morning, or too optimistic to consider consequences or too busy to separate the recycling. Sometimes they serve us well, reminding us to save our energy for the big things or to hold on to the small things until we have the resources to work for the bigger things. And sometimes they just get in the way. So maybe it is not only about what stories we tell and how we tell them, but also how we use them and how they serve us and others or do not.

Maybe I Need an Art Buddy. Maybe I Just Need Backup.

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Well, here I am back in the Writer’s Block, which kind of sounds like something you would find in a Communist prison. Yes, they really used to confiscate writers’ typewriters in the USSR and Poland. It was cost-effective. You don’t need to feed typewriters and they don’t bleed when you beat them up.

Here in the more or less democratic US of A, where we have Freedom of Font and also a whole lot more options for putting our ideas down and spreading them around, the problem tends not to be so much Tyranny that is rearing its ugly head as it is Woeful Lack of Imagination.

Part of this, I suspect, is because a blog is not exactly a Project in the same sense that a novel or, for want of a better example, a few hundred pages of poetry about a 1990s TV show are. There isn’t the compulsive pull of a few well-chosen characters whose voices need to be explored. There isn’t the narrative tension of a plot to resolve or of subplots to weave in artfully. On the flipside, there are more opportunities to use pictures of cats to make my points.

Sometimes, when procrastination takes the form of Radically Empty Brain Syndrome (REBS), I stare at the wall, vainly hoping for something to show up. But remember that “radical” comes from the Latin, radix, meaning “root.” If there is nothing at the root of the brain, there won’t be much to grow out of it. So maybe the solution is to find another brain to work with.

If I were an Igor in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I suppose I would mean that literally: find a brain, go up to the top of a tall MIT building and wait for lightning to strike. Then do an evil maniacal laugh, etc. Problem solved.

Tempting…

Failing that, I suppose I need to find another brain the less old-fashioned way, by actually finding a writing buddy, a collaborator, or possibly some badass with a big gun or maybe a Frisbee. Some writing buddies each write their own work separately and then read each other’s work. This is different from collaborators who work on the same project. Personally, I was thinking more along the lines of someone to come to my rescue with a whole lotta firepower, or possibly an Iron Frisbee of Doom.

Then maybe I’ll get writing again.

Constructive Procrastination

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Recently one of my Gentle Readers commented on my post about writer’s block. She says, “When I procrastinate I don’t write. … When I am unsure what to write, I might troll the Internet (procrastinate), which always puts me onto tangents and then an hour or more will go by and BOOM! I haven’t written a thing. So for me procrastination causes a block.”

I would argue that procrastination doesn’t cause the block any more than a stuffy nose causes a cold. We procrastinate because we need something and the style of procrastination can tell you something about what it is you need to get in a more effective way so that you stop procrastinating and start writing. I would also argue that Procrastination Isn’t Bad any more than water is bad, even though water—hot, cold or in between—can kill you. And yes, you can quote me.

The Internet is an interesting place, full of information, pictures and people. When we look for information on the internet because we don’t know what to write, it is possible that we haven’t narrowed down the “what” yet. I should have asked our friend what kind of writing she does, but I know for myself the rabbit’s hole of story leading to story ad infinitum the Internet can be. This is one case where a kitchen timer is your friend. Actually, when it comes to procrastinating constructively, a kitchen timer is almost always your friend. Do the procrastination behavior for a predetermined amount of time, say twenty minutes (as Francesco Cirillo, the developer of the Pomodoro Technique* would say). Then do some writing, also for a predetermined amount of time. Alternate back and forth between writing and one or more other activities. Over the course of an afternoon, you can get a lot done.

The Internets pictures (and videos) and people also are temptations for writers in particular. If I am bored with my writing topic, watching a cat video or reading a web comic might wake my brain back up. Facebook in particular is helpful for writers because, let’s face it, writing is lonely. So give yourself the opportunity to “socialize” in the virtual environment of your choice for, you guessed it, a predetermined amount of time. Then get back to work.

Our friend also says, “It’s like walking the dog or playing with the cats (‘for their sake,’ but I’m really procrastinating), and again nothing gets done, except some exercise for me and the pets.” Hey, don’t knock the exercise for you and them. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, oxygenated blood flow, which has got to improve the thinking. And socializing with your animal companions also helps allay the lonelies.

“With a real writer’s block, not caused by procrastinating—“

But again, I would argue that procrastinating is a self-defensive technique that we use in an attempt to fulfill needs that the writing can’t fulfill…

“—if a deadline looms or just blocked, I put my but in a chair and push through because it (deadline) must get done. When there is no deadline looming and I’m blocked, I do the time-tested technique of just writing for five minutes without lifting the pen (yes, on paper) and no censoring my thoughts. Sometimes it will show me what the problem is; other times it gives me ideas. Once in a while, I get both, which is wonderful, but rare.”

Free-writing! Woohoo! I have only met one person in twenty years of teaching who could not write for several minutes (I usually go for ten or twenty), and he was seriously ADHD. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a book that I imagine has saved lives) relies heavily on timed free-writing to get stuff Out of Head and Onto Paper (or, for those of you young whippersnappers, on your screen). Don’t judge; just write. Eventually your brain gives up and gives you what you are asking it for. And the more you do it, generally, the easier/quicker the process goes.

Lastly, our friend says, “Sometimes I think my problem is thinking too much.”

Heaven forbid, girlfriend! Thinking? Too Much? How is that even a thing? We’re WRITERS fer cryin’ out loud. Thinking is what we DO. Day and night. Personally, I think about writing 24/7. Yes, my dreams are very strange.

Grr. Arrgh. More Writer’s Block

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman, wears robes “woven of all colors” because he has fallen from the path of the wise, Gandalf (the Grey) says, “I liked white better.” This is Saruman’s reply:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

Now here’s the thing for me a writer. Saruman is clearly evil here, because he is saying the white page can be overwritten like it’s a bad thing.

For me as a writer, constantly trying to produce, this is definitely not a bad thing. So this past week struggling to come up with blog posts, I have tried a variety of things, but today I actually just broke down and turned to Google Images to find pictures to express how I feel: tired, afraid, studious, interrupted. Clearly Person of Interest (and a little bit of Angel) are helping me out here.

 

Then I went and found pictures about how I want to feel: badass.

 

Well, it must have worked, because what we have here, children, is a blog post.