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Entries in writers block (10)


A (slightly) new direction for the Unwritten Word

A casual reader of this blog will no doubt have noticed that these updates possess a certain... infrequency. I've talked a bit about this before: I put too much pressure on myself, I procrastinate, I get too busy, I get burnt out, wah wah wah. 

These things are all true, but there's something else to it:

I think maybe the concept ("One man! Boxes of old college notes! A dream!") is maybe kind of a little bit too much about me? 

Hear me out. What I had originally wanted for the Unwritten Word was to get me writing again, yes, and to have an excuse to gain closure on my well-intentioned but poorly executed college years, yes, but what I had really hoped was to build a community and to get that community participating. 

It's all well and fine that these challenges get me writing more, but I also want you to write more! And I want to hear about it! Writing sometimes feels like the most difficult work in the world, especially if you want to write but have not written in some time. Believe me. And I think everyone should and can write more. For self-exploration. For catharsis. For hyucks.

So, effective immediately:

The weekly challenges are also your challenges

I'm still going to post weird "found" prompts every week and try to make some kind of story out of them, but also I want you to start doing them with me. I want your stories to take the prompt in a completely different direction than I did. I want you guys to write stuff that surprises you, that you wouldn't have written otherwise. 

At the end of each weekly challenge (midnight Sunday, EST), I want you to post your story on your own blog, Livejournal, Tumblr, whatever and then link back to it in the comments on my blog. Or, if the story is short, you can paste the entire thing into a comment or onto the Facebook page. Or you can send it to me via the Contact page on this site. 

Or you can report that you wrote but refuse to show the rest of us what you wrote. That's also fine! We will not judge you. (Much...)

In short, let's have fun. Let's write more. Who's in?


Colson Whitehead's "rules" for writing

From Colson Whitehead, writing advice that is one part earnest and two parts just funny:

Rule No. 7: Writer’s block is a tool — use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, “I’m blocked.” Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters “talk to you” and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don’t feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, they forsake you, it’s out of your hands and whatnot. Writer’s block is like “We couldn’t get a baby sitter” or “I ate some bad shrimp,” an excuse that always gets you a pass. The electric company nagging you for money, your cell provider harassing you, whatever — just say, “I’m blocked,” and you’re off the hook. But don’t overdo it. In the same way the baby-sitter bit loses credibility when your kids are in grad school, there’s an expiration date. After 20 years, you might want to mix it up. Throw in an Ellisonian “My house caught fire and burned up my opus.” The specifics don’t matter — the important thing is to figure out what works for you.

Read the rest here!


An expletive-infused adrenaline shot of writerly can-do from Chuck Wendig

I'm taking a quick break from my paid writing to share this with you:

Life’s getting in the way? I’m sorry, that’s how life works. Life is a series of obstructions — it’s speedbumps all the way down. You’re depressed? Get in line. You’re depressed. So’s that woman over there and she wrote 1000 words today, and yesterday, and the day before. You think I don’t deal with depression? Of course I do. We writers are tailor-made for that. I know, I sound unsympathetic — trust me, it’s the opposite. I’m completely sympathetic. I’ve been there. I’m sometimes there still. It doesn’t change the cold, hard fact that all the power lies with you. In your brain. In your hands. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Did you want it to be easy? What fun is easy? Easy is a value of zero. And surely you want more than nothing? Writing makes you pay. In blood and tears and frustration. You do it because you love it. Not because it’s a warm bed at your back but because it’s sharp stones under your feet spurring you forward.


Fuck it. Shut up! Write. You get your years and you get no more. These are your days. No Muse is going to breathe a hot sigh of inspiration up your hiney-hole. I’m not going to come to your house and crawl inside your skin and bind my bones to yours with the purpose of forcing you to crap out all your big bad story-words. Oh, you have writer’s block? Boo-hoo! Writer’s Block has as much power as you give it — it’s a Weeping Angel, so bind it to the earth with your gaze.

This is creation!

If you liked this, definitely read the whole thing here! I found it both funny and inspiring. PERHAPS YOU WILL TOO.


Reflections on Week Seven

[Read the completed story here!]

As I realized when writing the reflections for Week Six, the best way for me to break these challenges into actual stories that I'm not ashamed to write is to dig so deep into one theme or aspect of the prompt that the final result bears little resemblence to the original idea. I am much more creative with constraints, and having to push and pull against something I don't want to write is a great way to figure out what I do want to write.

The process, I'm just now realizing, is very similar to the Lifehacker.com article I posted about here:

The biggest creativity challenge we face is that while we want to innovate and change, our brain actually prefers to stick with what it knows. Whether it's a first draft or a five year old plan—once an idea has taken root it's very difficult to think of another. [...]

A powerful tactic to overcome this is taking a project and breaking it down into smaller pieces. Once you stop looking at your project as a whole, things don't look as obvious as they were before. Write down a list of all the elements in your current project[...]. Then focus on one part at a time and change just that one. The most interesting thing about this tactic is that just dividing a project into a discrete list of elements will help ideas to start flowing.

(Check out the rest of the article here! There are illustrations!)

Which is exactly what happened with Week Seven's challenge: what began as an idea for a "documentary" in which the narrator is actually planning to kill the subject of the documentary ended as a short play in which an interviewer is trying to break down the interviewee (and then the tables turn... and then they turn again). 

I kept thinking during the revision process that this story is not something I could have written when I was in college. I had had a part-time job (sometimes two) since the sixth grade, but I didn't know anything at all about types of resume paper, tax writeoffs, or interview ettiquette/strategy. I didn't have any experience with unemployment. 

Sometime during my Freshman year at Emerson, my buddy Graham and I went to a gaming convention (oh yes we did) at Harvard called Vericon. One of the featured guests that year was Margaret Weis, coauthor of many of the earlier Dragonlance Chronicles books that I adored during middle school.

[Quick geeky sidebar: She actually showed up in the middle of a game of Dragonlance, in character, as Tasslehoff Burrfoot—a diminuative kind-hearted thief—and stole a number of things from our characters before departing. I'm truly sorry if this is the weirdest thing yet you've read on this blog, but it was awesome.]

Anyway, I learned later that she was signing books down the street, so Graham and I wandered over, and I did something I had never dared to do (and have been far too embarassed to try since): I asked her something like what, in her opinion, was the most important thing in becoming a writer. It was a powerfully dumb question, I know, but I just wanted a connection of some kind.

Her answer completely deflated me then but fills me with gratitude now: she told me that the best thing a writer can do is to grow up before becoming an author. That all these important life experiences would happen between now and then that would shape my stories in unimaginable ways. It was not the answer I wanted to hear—I was accruing all of this college debt in order to become a successful novelist now, not decades from now.

But she was right. I've done a lot of growing up between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2012, and no doubt there's still a lot more growing up to do. But I am a much more confident writer now, with a much greater wealth of experience (some of it awful at the time, but all of it uniquely mine) to draw on. I still don't know if I'm ready to become an actual novelist yet, but I think I am ready to try.

Next up: Week Eight!


Overcoming creativity blocks

Courtesy of Lifehacker.com, lots of great, practical advice for breaking through your blocks and getting innovative, including:

When you're facing a difficult problem—try to create a number of different answers. This will help you solve it more quickly, and in a more creative way. Before you start a project or a part of it, draft 5-6 different alternatives. [...] I make sure to prepare a list of all the alternatives before starting so I won't get fixated. Now, let's make things more interesting—try to create a range within your alternatives - the first one should be the most standard one you can imagine, with the last one raising an eyebrow or two. Even if you end up choosing alternatives that are closer to the standard than to the extreme, after experimenting with quirky ideas, your ‘standard' version will probably also change, and come more to life.


Try taking an existing or a half baked project and rethink it in someone else's shoes. If it's a design project— how would it look like if it was designed by Google or maybe even by Starbucks? If it's something you write—how would a certain writer or maybe a colleague sitting across the room would write it? You'll soon find out that while your designs or text will be very far removed from your chosen style, bringing in a style constraint into the equation will spark your creative magic.

Read the rest here!


Loving the craft when we tire of the writing

A short feel-good piece from Writer... Interrupted:

Let’s face it, every writer everywhere has known his (her) fair share of tough times. The words won’t come, the story dries up, or we grow weary from the process.

It doesn’t mean we no longer love what we do. It does mean that we can still love the craft of writing, but be exhausted from effort expended. Especially when life happens.

Read the rest here!

Probably everyone suffers from this, but I especially have a hard time distinguishing between a bad writing day and my overall attitude about my writerly aspirations—if it truly is my passion, then I really ought to, like, enjoy it, right? Always?

Something this blog is teaching me is that you have to trust in the process. If you can't write, write about why you can't write. Whatever you have to do to keep the pen moving, even if the words are unusable. The story will come.


Writers' block is a myth

Along the lines of what John August says about writers' block, some useful perspective from Working Writers:

Beginning a new story is difficult. The first three chapters are a notorious pain in the rear and many writers – professional or not – wrestle with these beasts more than any other portion of the book. This is completely natural and the only way through it is to write and keep on writing, even if you don’t like what you’re typing. There’s nothing you can mess up in the first draft that isn’t fixable in revisions and there will be revisions a plenty!

and also

Writing is mentally exhausting, take breaks. When my brain feels like goo and I fear it’ll run out my ears, I get away from my desk and do something to refresh. Walk in the garden, do the dishes or laundry. Whatever you decide to do make sure it’s relaxing, relatively brainless and not distracting like, say, chatting on the phone.

Check out the rest here.


Reflections on Week Five

[Read the completed challenge here!]

Because the readership of this blog is still so small, I'm tempted to breeze right past the fact that I posted Week Five's challenge in April and only posted the final piece now, June 17th. Future readers wouldn't even have to know that I was a crappy blogger for three entire months! Well, I'm going to fess up because I admire earnestness and honesty in the blogs of other people, and maybe my struggle with this will help others.

So. You may have noticed that the things I posted between then and now dealt mostly with writers' block, but that wasn't the whole reason this took so long.

The reason was this: I wasn't having fun.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess here too that the mind-blowing Mass Effect 3 played a not-insignificant role, but that was a symptom more than it was the disease, okay?]

I've been thinking a lot about writing in general and this blog specifically these past months, and through many conversations with like-minded creative folk I came around to the understanding that, in addition to using writing prompts I thought of in college, I have also been pressuring myself to write the kinds of things I felt I had to write in college. Namely: Literary Fiction, which I do enjoy reading but find torturous to write.

I talked a little bit about this while I was brainstorming Week Five's storyI wrote that I thought it would be "exhausting" to have a career writing meditative literary fiction. Whatever your feelings about genre fiction, I believe that the many authors of it are able to write often several books a year not because the writing is necessarily awful, but because they enjoy what they are writing and can't wait to see what happens next. Before I went to college for it, I felt this way about every creative thing I wrote. So what happened?

Well. This is my blog after all, and I should write whatever I wanna. So, after a false start about one paragraph long in which I did indeed try to continue the fraught yet meditative literary adventures of Week Three's nameless protagonist, I found myself on a bus with a notepad and a pen. I had, before this, been looking for a Father's Day card that would be suitable to give to my mother, who, after all, had to be both mother and father for my sister and me. So all of this was in the soup when I wrote the following, still thinking I was going to continue with my idea from Week Three:

What happened to the mother as best-parent stereotype? Nothing did. They have biology on their side. More interesting is how men have to study how to be a man. We've softened a bit, which is good, but now we have to find our role models.

Two things here: I regularly read Esquire magazine because it's the first real instruction manual I've found for being a man. Seriously, basic shit like the best way to shave, what to drink, and that you should use a face moisturizer with SPF 15. Who else will tell me this? Second, that male children of divorce must go in search of father figures is an idea that's surfaced a few times in comedian Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, which I listen to religiously.

So in jotting down just this, I realized that I wanted to write something in the style of Esquire (direct, earnest, often wry) and that I wanted to explore a little bit my own complex relationship with my father.

And there you have it. I wrote a paragraph or so on the bus, the rest of it over two hours the next morning, typed it up and picked at the words for two more hours tonight, and blammo. I'm terribly proud of it—it's in a style that I enjoy and suits me well. I love mixing earnestness with humor with punch-in-the-gut sentiment. The end result is a cross between something you would find in Esquire and Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar column. And, having posted it on Father's Day, the timing was perfect.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. Next up, Week Six!


Writer's block, according to John August

From John August, screenwriter (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Go):

“Writer’s block” is an overused term. When a writer claims to be suffering from it, he is usually wrestling with some combination of three common problems: procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. “Writer’s block” is a romanticized catch-all that distracts from these real issues.

Screenwriters can use a range [of] techniques to get over the hump, from setting a kitchen timer, to breaking work down into manageable chunks, to writing in an order that makes sense for the way you work.

The rest is here, along with an episode of John August and Craig Mazin's Scriptnotes podcast.

I think this is probably true—I've suffered from all three of these problems for as long as I can remember. In my case, the perfectionism (and fear that whatever I create will not meet these impossible standards) leads to procrastination, which later becomes either a last-minute rush job that actually turns out okay (but burns me out) or abandonment. 

If only I could have overcome this during my college years instead of continuing to rely on deadlines (self imposed now, and not nearly as scary) to motivate me. But I am trying not to be too hard on myself. August's suggestions here are good, and I'm looking forward to listening to the podcast to see if he has any others. 


Rejected, blocked, published

[...A writing-centric prequel to Eat, Pray, Love?]

From a fantastic blog post about rejection and writer's block by Kamala Nair—author of the lyrical debut novel The Girl in the Garden (and a friend of mine):

“But I don’t want to ruin the magic of the childhood story,” I said.

“Forget about the magic,” she shot back. “Who do you want Rakhee to be as an adult?”

“I want her to be a strong woman who overcame adversity but is still struggling with her pain.”

“So put that in there,” my friend advised. “Just write ‘I am strong and struggling with pain.’ Meaning for the first few drafts just free-associate and write all the things that you want her to be in a very direct way…just accept that the first ten drafts will be shitty.”

Receiving that permission to write a stack of shitty drafts was freeing. I took my friend’s advice and within a matter of days, everything became perfectly clear, and I was able to write, the words gushing forth, without getting in my own way.

“I think you’ve got it this time,” my agent said when I sent her the final product. She was right. Within a few days, she found a loving home for my novel, and I was on my way.

Read more here.

As big an advocate I am of Anne Lamott and her inspirational yet addictive (I've read it probably five times) Bird by Bird, I still have a really hard time putting pen to paper and telling my critical mind to go screw. But clearly it works, and Kamala's eventual triumph is proof.