I’ve been working on this one for a while. I’m not sure if it’s ironic or expected to have writer’s block about a post on how to bear writer’s block, but apparently that’s how I roll. With all the writing I’ve been doing lately, what with my still nebulous 2014 potential hour-long fringe poem, non-Fringey poetry, a neat little set-in-Vancouver web series I’m working on, and my occasional blog, I’ve been doing a lot of staring at a blank page*, and I’ve come to some conclusions about the bugger.
There’s a romantic image of the writing process as the product of a single inspired session with the quill pen and the blank page, as the river of inspiration overflows and the writer is carried along helpless on the torrent until ‘The End’ is reached in a final flourish and an exhausted and slightly baffled writer is left to wonder what on earth just happened. If one can’t sit down to write and immediately, the theory goes, one is royally screwed in the creative linguistics department and should probably go pursue a career in tax accountancy instead.**
There are in fact steps between the idea and the brilliant finished product. Many of them. And there are many ways to combat the inevitable Dread Dragon of Flat, Empty White Spaces: writer’s block.
Give yourself brain space:
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of workshops on how to create stories out of physical movement exercises and the pictures one can make with one’s body (think tableaux). I’m not entirely sold. Generally, I find the idea less than productive because when a person is contorting oneself around the living room, it’s impossible to actually see what is occurring***. It’s got its place certainly, especially if you’re doing site-specific work or want to break in a new pair of yoga pants and don’t feel up to getting out to the studio. Physical movement gets you out of your head and into your body, which can allow you to bypass those pesky mental roadblocks. However, for those of you who want something less cringeingly self-embarrassing to try, don’t despair. Simply taking a walk around the block can be enough to settle the mind and get the creative juices flowing again. Sit down with a cup of tea or get up and do something that doesn’t require your mental attention, keep your project generally in mind, and see what happens.
You see, a lot of writing time is spent not writing, and believe it or not, it still counts as productive. As long as you’re actively focussing on your project, the time you give your brain to percolate ideas through its various filters of cogitation so that they can be funnelled out through your pen is time well spent. Brainstorming doesn’t have to be all that stormy. Gentler mental weather can be useful as well. The practice of allowing one’s brain to wander off, sort through its sh*t and report back is vital to the creative process. Call it writers’ yoga. It’s the reason why so many brilliant ideas have snuck up on their progenitors in their night clothes, generating incidental embarrassment all around. Nighttime is for many people the one time of day they let themselves just stop, and the brain rewards its uncorseting with correspondingly fuller-figured ideas.
Pick up a pen:
The traditional bubble-style brainstorming one learns in grade school holds no appeal for me. I never know how much space a growing bubble needs. It’s agony. Instead I list, and then I sort the list****. I’m a very linear person, really. This may work for you, and it may not. Maybe you really like bubbles, or maybe you naturally think in triangles. In the end, it’s all about getting the ideas down where you can see them without judging them first, and then trying to find sense in the result. It can be fascinating to see how ideas that appeared to be totally isolated are actually part of the same story. The actual shape of the process is unimportant. Figure out how your brain flows, and write the diagram that works for you on the surface of your choice, using whatever furniture you deem necessary to help you along.
Automatic writing is another tool touted for its brain-loosening qualities. In its purest form, it involves taking up a pen(cil) and, for a set time period, writing without stopping whatever comes into your head – up to and including many repetitions of “this is stupid I have nothing to say I don’t wanna.” I will neither confirm nor deny the original authorship of that last. Needless to say, I do not like this technique. Yes, it works the non-censorship muscle, and yes, a person can come up with ideas they never knew they had if they just let their mind babble, but I find it incredibly frustrating. Writing without direction is like baking without a recipe or measuring tools. If you empty everything into the bowl and stir, you might end up with a cake, but you’ll more likely end up with a mess. Set yourself a topic or a problem and see what comes out.
As with bubble (or not) brainstorming, the key is not to stop and censor. Even writing about having nothing to write about can move you forward. What starts out as an unpunctuated rant about how much you hate your project right now can lead you off in a direction you never thought of. Part of uncensoring is giving yourself permission to air the bad stuff too, and without the pressure to perform that comes with product-focussed work, the brain is freed to move in a new direction. Again, I find this tool most useful when I point my mind at a particular problem, but even if you do it just to practice and with no definite aim in mind, give yourself a direction. Write about your chair, or the corner of your room, if you have to. Write about the really awesome sandwich you had for lunch****. The more specific you get, intuition to the contrary, the more there is to work with. The wider the net, the more time spent searching for fish.
Change the view:
My ideal study includes a full wall of chalkboard, schoolroom style…and a HEPA filter, because my gosh, those things are dusty. Brainstorming is a messy process. I do this best either on my feet or sprawled over every available inch of floor. (Desks and I do not get along, except for when l need a place to store the paper heap.) I write on the computer, in notebooks, on looseleaf, on my whiteboard – really, wherever there happens to be space to make letters. It can be difficult to keep track of what I’ve written where, especially when combined with my unfortunate habit of putting things down somewhere, it was just here, no I swear I had it a minute ago…, but at the same time, I find it a really useful trick for circumventing whatever writer’s block demons happen to be haunting me when I sit down to write. A change in venue, so to speak, can be enough to jog the brain out of its loop of unproductive, idealess panic and allow you to settle back into the groove.
Option two, the logical extension of this, is to actually change venues. Go write on the porch, or in the loving room. Pick up your notebook or laptop and wander down to the neighbourhood cafe. Write at the park, or the beach. If you’re one of those creative types actually lucky to have money (or rich friends), spend a weekend in a cabin somewhere communing with nature and the Muse. Physically unsticking yourself from your personal hell-hole of stagnant creation can be enough to unstick the brain as well. As an added bonus you end up with fresh air, or caffeine, as well.
Give yourself a break:
If all else fails, give yourself permission to just walk away. Not forever, of course, but for long enough to let your brain reset and to get a bit of distance. Go do something else. Think about other things. Breathe. Even if it’s just ten minutes for a cup of tea and a quick constitutional around the yard, because hooray deadlines, give yourself a bit of space and recharge. Sometimes writer’s block is nothing more than overworked-brain cramp, and not writing for a bit is the best thing you can do******.
*and then metaphorically running off in frustration to play phone sudoku or internet flash games instead.
**I do my own taxes. Actually, it’s kind of fun.
***unless you have an inordinate amount of mirrors in your living room. In which case, you are either vain or kinky.
****Yes, sometimes I also tilt to the side a bit. Especially on or near large bodies of water.
*****Who knows? Perhaps “The Cheese and Onion Sandwich in the Corner of the Room” is a blockbuster whose time has come, and we’d never have known it if you hadn’t sat down and given your brain the space to play.
******Of course, it’s far too easy to let “just a little break” turn into a full-blown case of procrastination. If you notice yourself slipping into this phase, take a couple of fortifying breaths, listen to your sneakers and just do it. I believe in you.