Friday, May 8, 2009

Writer's Block: Part I

Many of my writers-friends have been talking about being blocked lately. I don’t know why, but everybody seems to have come down with it at about the same time. Thankfully, I am NOT currently blocked, but I’ve been there. In fact, I'm slightly superstitious about writing about it. What if thinking about writer's block brings it down on me? Then again, if I were blocked, I wouldn’t be able to write about writer’s block, would I?

I’m not going to do a discussion of whether this condition actually exists or not. I think it does. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea that “it’s just in your mind” is exactly the point. It is in your mind, the same way hallucinations are in the mind of a schizophrenic. I mean, the person standing next to a schizophrenic may not see the winged monkeys approaching in missing-man formation, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist for the schizophrenic, does it?

Anyway, I tend to find myself with two distinct variations of writer’s block:

1) Plain old writing blahs. I’ve got no ideas about anything, none of my works-in-progress interest me, and I think it might be time to take up knitting or something else, because clearly this writing thing isn’t going to work out.

2) Serious stuckness on a WIP. In other words, I have plenty of ideas for what happens after x, but I cannot figure out what x is, or how to get past it.

I’ll take the second first. The conventional wisdom on writer’s block is that the serious, professional writer gets herself out of it by writing her way out. In other words, you plant your butt in the chair, and you go at it, with fingers on the keyboard. It doesn’t matter how many words you write, or whether you throw every single one of them out, the point is that you work the problem in the most obvious manner for a writer.

This doesn’t work for me.

This approach makes me unbearably bitchy. I start resenting everything—my computer, the keyboard, my characters, my coffee mug. I feel imprisoned, and whatever creativity I might have brought to bear on the problem is instead expended on daydreaming up ways to torture the writers who maintain that if I cannot do this, then I am not a real writer.

I prefer the indirect approach.

I gather up my files of research and my rough drafts, and I get the hell away from my desk. I go somewhere else—even the couch is an improvement—and I page through my files and reread my roughs. I use my pens and highlighters and colored post-its--I have an office-supply fetish--and I find tidbits of research that can be inserted here or there. Or I run across a bit of research I forgot about, and that will prompt an idea, and I’ll write a scene—in pen, on paper.

I edit the rough drafts. I re-read my beta readers’s comments, and consider them again, now that it’s been a few weeks since I received them, and I’m done resenting the person who called my character “annoying.”

In short, I mess around with the ms until I have some ideas about other things that can be done with it--things that have nothing to do with what has me blocked—and then I eventually make my way back to the computer, and I mess with those problems.

The effect isn’t always immediate, but if I stick with it, I generally find that whatever it is that has me blocked begins to resolve itself. And the beauty of this approach, to my mind, is that I don't get emotionally involved in being stuck, because I am still working on the ms.

Usually, the problem resolves itself in a light-bulb moment. It tends to happen while I’m doing something entirely unrelated, like squeezing cantaloupes in the grocery store, and then I have to put down the fruit and scramble in my purse for pen and paper to get down this fabulous solution before I forget it.

Yeah, I know. People might think I'm weird. I don’t care. I also pretty regularly walk around talking to myself, trying out dialogue between characters. (See why I thought of schizophrenics?) I gave up worrying about what other people think a long time ago.

The next post will address the first problem, the general writing blahs.