Monday, January 17, 2011

Blocks, Anyone? Part 2

Scroll down one post for Part 1.

Last time, I talked about whether writer's block is real and how it might be defined. Sometimes blocks have to do with certain fears we hold. But sometimes it's more about feeling stymied on our WIP (work in progress). Here are possible definitions of writer's block that I listed in the first post but have yet to discuss. Is writer's block:
  • Inability to come up with a story idea?
  • Inability to figure out what happens next in your story?
  • Inability to concentrate because life pulls you in a million directions?
  • Inability to get your protagonist out of the predicament you got her into?
Story ideas are funny. Lots of writers have way more than they'll ever use. Others feel they've come up with something original, even ground-breaking--yet it's like a million other books. Still others are like Toad, of Frog and Toad fame, who stands on his head, pours water on himself, bangs his head against the wall, and still can't think of a story. Sometimes inability to think of a story happens when we've been giving, giving, giving out, whether in writing or just life, and haven't let the creative well fill. Try doing something you love. Start a new hobby or resurrect an old one. Visit a museum or go outdoors. Walk. Drink tea and let your mind wander. Pray. Get a decent night's sleep for once. Read or look at pictures on any subject that piques your fancy. Remember that ideas can come from the least likely places, at the least likely times. WRITE THEM DOWN. NOW. Don't think the idea is so great you can't possibly forget. You will, and you'll kick yourself. It'll take 30-60 seconds, and unless the house is burning down there's nothing more significant or lasting  you can do with those seconds. If you're behind the wheel, pull over if possible. If you often get ideas while driving, keep a voice recorder handy to record them, or consider dictating them to a passenger.

A lot of the same techniques can help you get past tough spots in the story itself. The two I hear over and over again are WALK and TAKE A SHOWER. In my experience, walking helps both idea generation and stuck plots, and showering helps the latter. BIG TIME. Who knows why it works? It only matters that it does. The only thing you really have to do is be thinking about your story when you turn the water on. One final thought: Studying craft is an obvious help in dealing with plot or other story problems. Studying craft may not get you through a block; but then again it may, if the block has happened because you've hit the wall at your present level of craft.

As for those million directions--in some seasons of life they truly cannot be helped. But it's our job to figure out if we're in one of those seasons or if we're allowing ourselves to be victims in our own lives, not taking charge, not prioritizing, not saying no to the wasteful, or even to the good that's the enemy of the best. A million directions don't only block time to write, but they block our sense of ourselves as writers, to the point where we can feel blocked simply because we haven't picked up the WIP in so long that inertia has set in. It's easier to just not write, because we can no longer tap into the contentment, sense of well-being, or excitement that writing brings. Two or three days of discipline in sitting down and just "pulling teeth" to get back into the story can restart the flow -- and the fun -- again. Most of the time we're in a place where the choice is ours:  We can write, or we can let things we imagine we "have" to do crowd it out. But that's a whole other rant--er, post.

What's your experience with writer's block? Is it real? What do you see as the causes and cures?

10 comments:

Bish Denham said...

I pace when I get stumped. I also weed. Right now I'm simply procrastinating.

annebingham said...

What you said: Inability to concentrate because life pulls me in a million directions. Today it was going to be 2 hours on the WIP in the morning and 2 more in the afternoon.

And then the snow moved exercise to 9:15 instead of noon, and the towel rack fell off the bathroom wall, and I more work than I anticipated from an online editing gig I'm committed to, and now I have to shovel the upstairs porch/top of the screened porch before the snow gets much deeper and I can't open the door!

But I will start the clock ticking on the four hours as soon as I get dried out from the porch excavation!

(Meant to tell you how much I enjoyed the four-generations photos earlier this month. What a blessing for all of you.)

Jeff King said...

I watch a Harry Potter # 1. I've watched it so many times; it allows my mind to wander freely, and after two times my mind gets moving again.

My best advice is do whatever makes you bored, so bored your creative mind can work without conscious effort.

Vijaya said...

For me, it's having to do too much. So I drop things. Literally. Whether it's volunteering at the school or blogging. I enlist the help of my family. And like you say, after a week of some focused time on the WIP, I get back into the swing of things.

This weekend, I had a chance to look through my novel (not the whole thing) and I was itching to write, so I just made notes. I wrote in my notebook.

I probably shouldn't be here right now, but I want to give you an update :) I'm going to work for an hour on my book right now before going to bed because it's good, but not good enough, and my characters deserve this time.

Ciao meow, for a great post.

Marcia said...

Bish -- Yup, pacing is walking. I can see why weeding would work too. Anything we can do to occupy our hands and free our minds has potential.

Anne -- Haha, we lost the towel rack about a month ago. Sorry for spreading any "germs." :) You never know what'll come up, do you? Glad you enjoyed the photo!

Jeff -- That's a new one for me! But yes, a nice boring task that lets your mind fly free is good.

Vijaya -- Glad you came anyway. :D Doesn't itching to write feel good?

Laura Pauling said...

I can't say I've had true writer's block. But the times that I feel like it are when I'm discouraged - as after rejection of fulls. Man that is hard. But usually watching tv and reading good books takes care of it. Some movies just inspire me to want to write.

Marcia said...

Laura, I find that the same things get me in the mood to write again. For me it's mostly books -- not just a good story, but the actual physical book, too.

Mary Witzl said...

Walking is definitely a huge help when I can't see my way out of a situation and so is swimming, which of course is always followed by a shower... (maybe there's something about water -- positive ions in the air?) And I completely agree with Bish: weeding is another great block-clearing chore because it's so mindless and repetitive your brain automatically begins to work of its own accord.

I don't have to let my mind wander, though: it does that naturally, whether I allow it or not. :(

Marcia said...

Yeah, mindless, repetitive stuff can really let the mind go off. I've recently become conscious of HOW BORED I get SO FAST when doing the least mindless, repetitious thing. I need to learn to go beyond the immediate yearning to quit the activity and realize it can be a portal to great ideas.

Morgan said...

For me, writing blocks are mostly about fear. I think I was a bit spoiled when my first few submissions immediately found publishers who wanted them, and once the rejections started flowing in it was hard to stop the negative feelings that accompany them. The more I read about how difficult it can be to find an agent, reach a publisher, sign a contract, etc, the more I let go of the immediate goal which is simply to FINISH. If I allow myself the anxiety-relieving thought that my sole purpose right now is to be done with the book, then I'm able to write. I'll let other people worry about whether or not it was worth the effort. :)