Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Method to madness: Unblocking the writer in you

Writer’s block is one of the most frustrating things you can face in your life, whether it’s writing a short story, a novel, a thesis or a term paper. Sometimes we get blocked and it’s a very nerve-racking experience where everything is brought into question.

To be honest, I rarely have writer’s block (I’ve probably just jinxed myself and will get a block once I post this). Snide remarks in parentheses notwithstanding, there’s a couple of things I do to avoid a block. So first, let’s treat this as medicine, first offering some preventive tips and then some tips if you are in the block.

Preventing the block

Although there are hundreds of things I could recommend, I’ll offer 4 things you can do preventively to avoid the block.

Read any and everything. Something I do to keep the mind rolling constantly is looking up miscellaneous things on Wikipedia or using Stumbleupon to expose my brain to different things. A lot of people I know read only within their comfort zone and I think that in the end, that can eventually bite you in the rear end. If you only read one genre, you might be depriving yourself of a new angle you could find by just broadening your horizons. I’m sure there are dozens of people that say to gorge on your genre of choice and although I can see their reasoning, for me it doesn’t work and I constantly switch rhythm in what I’m reading to keep my brain on its toes. Case in point, for Only Human, I did research on History, Geography, religious figures, angels, botany and foreign folk tales in search of different twists I could give. For the Human trilogy, research is essential because although I know where the story wants to go, I often find little tidbits that open up whole new chapters just because of some line I read and my imagination ran with it.

Avoid crutches. Some people need to drink (wine, tea, soda, water) to get their mojo going. The reality is that if you continually use a method to attain certain results, you will freak if and probably when you get a block. Plus, if you depend on any substance, it’s like any meds, eventually you will need to up the dosage until it no longer works.

Keep a pen and paper nearby (or OK use your phone). Lighting strikes when you least expect it. Be ready for it because the link to complete your story is within you and will only peek out once in a while. No matter how foolish an idea seems, jot it down. More often than not, you will either make it work or you will see the answer clearer thanks to that little note you scribbled on a napkin. Your brain can sometimes be a tease and you need to be ready to go when it wants to go.

Try different foods, drinks and experiences. Experience is the seed of inspiration and the more you live and the more you experience, the richer the well to gather inspiration from will be. Remember a good conversation can lead to brilliant writing because it’s based on something real.

Ok, so those are 4 tips to keep things fresh and your inspiration going strong… yet you still landed in a writer’s block. That’s fine too, it happens and you can deal with it.

Breaking the block

Step 1: Calm down

The most natural thing that happens when you think you’re getting a block is to lose your cool. The most important thing to remember is that there is no reason to not be calm. You are in control and your brain is endlessly more gifted and powerful than you give it credit for. First step is to stop writing and breathe. It could be a deadline that has you stressed. Think back to college or high school and think of all those times you aced a project you wrote the night before even when you had two months when you could have done it. You’re still capable of that with or without the stress. If you want to see how much you can get done in ten minutes, free write about any mundane thing. Just make sure to write straight for ten minutes about anything, even if it’s about your block. Just write. Once you see what you did in ten minutes about something trivial, you’ll feel a lot more confident about what you want or need to write about.

Step 2: Write something else or vary your method

Something that has been endlessly fundamental in my writing is to write more than one thing at a time or taking time to just jot down ideas of other things. If I’m writing a short story and I’m stuck, I jot down ideas for a novel, draft a story arc, write a song or a poem. So it's not to say I don't get blocks, I just don't dwell on them. By switching gears, it often helps me get the ball rolling and although I often finish what got me going, sometimes I don’t even finish that other thing and focus on the project I was blocked on. Another thing I do is that I vary my approach with each project. Like I said for Only Human, sometimes I do insane amounts of research, other times I just jot down things and draft a story arc from scratch. Rarely do I repeat the method when writing. Case in point, the first draft for Only Human was handwritten and it took four months to transcribe. For some upcoming projects, I’m writing some by hand and others directly on the computer. It helps me tap into different styles and rhythms and your brain operates different when you use any writing utensil than when you type. So if you’re using one method, go the other direction and see if that gives you the break you need. 

Step 3: Talk to your characters or to the speaker

Carl Jung is quoted as saying he had in-depth conversations with people whom he had never met and that these conversations led to some of the most intense revelations in his psychiatric career. Taking the time to know your characters, what they feel, how they react, how they think and what drives them will be essential in your writing, ESPECIALLY if you’re in a block. If you’re working on a term paper or thesis, ask the speaker a few questions, interview her or him and try to see what makes them tick. If might seem silly at first, until you have a deep conversation and see the path as clear as you’ve ever seen it. Besides, if you do that you’ll tap into something genuine that only you and the speaker or character know.

Step 4: Face your fear

Blocks can happen for a thousand reasons and something that truly strengthens a block is fear. Fear can happen because of the lack of time to write or because you’re afraid something will not be as good as it should. It could even be because you’re afraid of writing something. A topic might seem as if it’ll be controversial or a character you actually enjoy is going to die… both of these things are inevitable and if you truly believe you have to write both things to do your writing justice, do it. Allow yourself the freedom to be yourself and to break down barriers. Let pain enter what you write and live it and suffer it because if you do, chances are someone else will too… and they will thank you for it.

I hope these tips help you and by all means, if you have any questions feel free to write me @ or follow me through twitter @jdestradawriter.

Peace, love and maki rolls.


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