Build Your Own Writer’s Block

Anyone who has been a writer for more than a hot second has experienced writer’s block. It’s one of those strange, shape-shifting creatures that can last for any length of time, comes and goes as it pleases, and can be a minor annoyance or an awful, ever-growing, monstrous presence over which you feel you have no control.

I had experienced one form of writer’s block for my entire life, until recently, and it was the kind that made me question whether writer’s block actually existed at all, or if it was just a fancy term for lazy. It’s that state of mind where you feel like you can’t write until inspiration hits. Or: “Well, I want to get some writing done, but there’s an Indiana Jones marathon on tv…”

Over this past year, I’ve had a more troublesome version of the dreaded affliction. The best way I can describe the feeling is having lost my way with words. I had new ideas, and built on some old ideas, but when it came to writing attempts, the entire English language escaped me. There were blog posts that were deleted before I finished them because they were flat and boring and didn’t seem to say anything worth sharing. It was frustrating to say the least, disheartening, and led me to wonder once in a while if I should really keep trying to be a writer. Existential crisis much?!

Most often, though, it seems that writer’s block is just a series of excuses given to justify why you’re not writing. It’s pretty much fabricated due to anxiety, laziness, or some other underlying reason you’ve decided you’re not “in the mood” to write. The following are a few of the excuses I have been using:

  • I can’t write this thing until I’ve written this other thing! Unless you have actual deadlines for specific pieces, the order in which they’re written is not usually relevant. Certain stories, characters, ideas, etc. push their way to the front. Creative ideas do not stay in a single file line, waiting their turn. They’re more like cattle, and you have to wrangle them, chase after the ones that run off, and occasionally one gets eaten by coyotes, wolves, tigers, boa constrictors…
  • I don’t have a good place to submit or share that piece! This is a legitimate consideration when it comes to publishing pieces, but that part can’t be done until after they’re written! You’re definitely getting ahead of yourself if you’re giving the publishing and marketing aspects of things this much attention before you do the writing itself. Or, to look at it another way, it may mean that you’re not a writer at all, but just someone who wants to sell your ideas. There is a big difference. Focus on the writing part. Create your content. Then worry about finding the right platform for it.
  • The idea isn’t ready yet! There is sense and silliness to this thought. There are times when a story needs time to percolate in your mind, to form a clearer picture, before you can grasp it enough to put it on paper (physical or virtual). If that’s the case, sure, hold off on that idea, and write something else. However, if you’re waiting until you have the whole thing crafted so that you can write a mind-blowing first draft, you’re wasting time. Getting the story perfect, or right, or whatever you’re aiming for, is better left to the realm of editing. Your first draft will not be a masterpiece. Accept this, and get down to business.

The truth is that sometimes writer’s block gets the best of you for a little while, but the best way to push through it, no matter what variety you have, is to just keep writing. This is the type of advice that doesn’t seem entirely helpful when you feel like you need an extra push, but it is a fact that all writers eventually learn. I didn’t follow this advice much this past year, I’ll admit. With the writing goals I’ve set for 2015, I can’t allow writer’s block to slow me down. I thought I’d debunk the condition before starting this new journey, as a way to remind myself that writer’s block only has power if you let it.

This post is raw, unedited, just barely proofread. In the near future I might be writing more carefully crafted posts, but this is mostly another stream of consciousness offering from someone who sometimes has interesting thoughts.  

Seeking Microfiction

Writing has been hard these days. I find that at any given time I either have nothing to say or too many things to say. It’s probably a stress thing. I should meditate more, and drink less coffee. Or more coffee.

Yes. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m not drinking nearly enough coffee. I should rectify that.

Then again, maybe I should drink less coffee after all…

I’m feeling indecisive. Can you tell?

I’ve been thinking that I want to start writing microfiction again. I was very into that style for a while, and it just dropped off suddenly for reasons I could not identify.

Flash fiction is something that has probably been around longer than we think, but has gained traction in the past few years. It does not seem to have a fixed definition. Some people will say under 1000 words, others will say under 1500 or 2000. Some people say anything that’s no more than a few pages is flash fiction.

Microfiction is sort of a subcategory of that, also without a firm word limit, but in my experience it defines works up to the 500-700 word mark. It can be as short as a sentence or two, or as long as a few paragraphs. In theory, the short piece contains an entire story, or enough of a story that the reader can fill in the missing details. Personally, I think there’s a danger of reading that criterion in a limited way. Yes, the intention is to try to fully communicate the piece in that rather small word count, but I don’t think that means packing a plot into that space. Many of my microfiction pieces are more along the lines of snapshots, moments in time, rather than trying to have a narrative. I think the form lends itself to that use and so I took full advantage of it.

I don’t know why I stopped writing them. I suppose I just stopped experiencing things that inspired me in that way. Or I got distracted by adult life and became separated from my imagination. Or both. So I tried to remember how I started writing them, and I remembered–of course, I started by reading.

One book I can go back to is Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I would also like to find some microfiction I have not already read. Do you have any suggestions?

 

Books that Inspire

I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I find myself wishing that I had read it as a child–not because it’s written for children (I don’t know if it was) or because I would have enjoyed it more then than I am right now. I wish I had read it when I was younger because it is so well-written and such a wonderful tale that I know it would have been one of those books that I read over and over, one of those that inspired me as a writer.

As I read I’m comparing the book to the movie that came out a few years ago, and I am surprised at the amount of differences in just the first third of the book. This is definitely a case of the book and movie being almost entirely separate stories (I mean, in the movie, Yvaine never says “fuck”). So, although I have some idea of how the story goes, there are enough differences that I get to have that feeling of wanting to know what will happen next.

I would say the story has many typical elements of fairy tales and the fantasy genre (that is, before urban fantasy became popular). The details, though, are unique enough that I don’t feel like I’ve read the same story a thousand times. Since every basic story has been told already, as they say, it’s all in the way the story is told, and this one is told brilliantly. The way that details are revealed allows for just the right amount of suspense, in my opinion. I have a somewhat low suspense threshold and when it’s crossed, I get bored, so I’m happy with just enough to keep it interesting. And the language, oh my. It’s not news that Neil Gaiman is an excellent writer, but there is something about this book in particular… the quality of the writing fits so well with the setting of the Faerie world. In my opinion it’s quite ethereal, a little surreal, but not insubstantial or unbelievable in any way. Maybe I would still believe in Faerie if I had read this book when I was younger.

Last night I was reading this instead of going to sleep and I was reminded in a way that rarely happens these days that I am supposed to be writing. Of all the other interests I have cultivated, nothing makes me feel as satisfied as writing, and there is no other medium through which I can express myself so well. If I didn’t have bills and student loans and all that to worry about, I would just write full time starting NOW.

An Unnecessary Post

Just now, my life is feeling very bland. I’m not devoid of creative inspiration for writing, but I don’t feel a particular urge to create. I want to spend time with my friends, do something fun, exciting–but I also want to just have time alone, possibly lying in bed staring at the ceiling while listening to music.* I want to get lost in reading.

I have two thoughts on this. One is that my creative energy needs time to build up. None of our creative wells are quite bottomless, and if it hasn’t rained enough lately, they’re bound to be very low.

My other thought is that I’ve become engulfed in necessity (chores, bills, etc.), and the energy that requires just puts me in a mindset that is not conducive to writing.

From my past experience, I have to advise myself that the best way to fix this is to just start writing something.

But I need to complete this editing work first. And many other more “necessary” things.

But what could be more necessary to a writer than writing?

I am awash in dilemmas of adulthood.

 

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*Current music selection would probably be Deftones, Oh Land, or something very new age/experimental with no vocals.

Imagination on Vacation (I Blame Television)

Like the vast majority of Americans, I watch a lot of videos of various kinds. Tv shows, movies, and a huge variety of videos (although few actually original) of different lengths and subjects abound all over the internet. And since wi-fi is everywhere these days, you could quite literally spend all of your life, or at least your free time, in front of a screen.

Well, so far I’ve stated the obvious. Now I’m about to sound like your grandparents (or even your parents, probably):

When I was growing up, things were very different. We had a television, of course–everyone had a television–but at my house, we just had basic cable. A lot of people I knew just had basic cable, while many others paid for premium channels. Now, it’s essentially impossible to only get basic cable. They simply don’t offer it anymore. Granted, I don’t know what the cable options are because I’ve never had to sign up for it myself, but I think “basic” cable no longer means the major networks on channels below number 10 and the local access channels in the teens.

I had access to the fancy cable at friends’ and relatives’ houses, and although I particularly enjoyed the golden age of Nickelodeon shows, I never felt like I really needed it. I spend much of my time reading, drawing (badly), or playing imaginative games, often by myself. There is certainly a place for sitting and doing essentially nothing in all our lives. The Italian term “dolce far niente,” although probably not intended to mean being a couch potato, captures this idea nicely. But then, we also need engaging activities that inspire and motivate us–and where is the place for that sort of activity when there are more movies available than we could ever watch in our lifetimes?

I am not denying the artistic merit of some films and shows, or the value of visual storytelling. When it comes down to it, sometimes words are not enough to really capture the image or concept. As a writer, this is something that frustrates me constantly and makes me wish I were able to draw well. So various lengths of cinematic material have their place in quality entertainment. The one thing that is generally true of all movies, shows, short films, etc., though, regardless of their level of either quality or inanity, is that the role of the viewer in the entertainment/observer relationship is passive. In order to watch a video, all you need to do is press play, look at the screen, and not interrupt playback. This is not to say that film cannot make you think, of course. It can.

Reading is an active pursuit. I suppose it would be possible to read a headline or a short phrase by accident, but in order to read a book, a short story, a poem, even a full sentence, you have to make a conscious decision to be engaged in the activity. Your own mind is responsible for picture the words create. Reading cannot simply happen by staring at an open page. You have to make your eyes move from word to word. If you’re reading a physical book, you have to turn pages. If reading an ebook or an online article, you’re often required to scroll, click, or swipe to continue reading the piece. And so, regardless of the quality of the content (or whether the book is better than the movie), the act of reading must be purposeful.

I’m trying to get back into the habit of reading. I do not do it very much anymore. I most often read for no more than two or three hours in a given day. I never stay up late into the night lost in the words of a book. In fact, I rarely read more than fifteen pages at a time without stopping to take a break, most frequently to mess around on the internet. When I was young, I used to spend entire days reading. There were many books I re-read (so I have not read as many books as most people I know who love reading), some many times. I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Arkadians probably ten times in my preteen era.  (I highly recommend it.) I got such a rush from reading. It would spark my imagination. All that I read fed into my store of images and stories, blending together and transmogrifying into new ones, like a personal mythology. When I decided I had to write, ideas would flow freely. Tales would play in my head and I would do my best to copy them down, not generally suffering from any hesitation or writer’s block.

I used to watch a little tv and do a lot of reading. Now it’s pretty much the opposite. It was sometime in my teen years that I really started to watch tv much more frequently, and that only increased as time went on. And since somewhere around the age of fifteen, I have not generally spent so much time working on my writing. As I said, I will not claim that there aren’t good stories to be watched, or that writers cannot get ideas from the cinematic medium. However, I can’t help but notice that when I’m not reading, my urge to write usually disappears. When I do pick up a book, particularly one that is especially creative or simply resonates with me either in its content or style, my imagination comes alive. I think that the active nature of reading motivates me to be creatively active, in a way that the sit-and-do-nothing feeling of watching television or movies just cannot achieve.

If others have had a similar experience, it implies quite a bit about the effects of too-available television and the importance of reading. Of course, this could just be my own weird head’s response to different forms of media. So you tell me: does television give you creative energy? How about reading? I want to know.

Five Things Friday: January 31, 2014

It is 2014. A whole month has gone by and almost the only thing I’ve done all month is wallow and stress. I’m failing at 2014.

1. I have an eye twitch right now. It’s really annoying. It’s almost always my left eye. Anyone have thoughts about this? I think it’s interesting that it’s usually the same eye, and it’s always just one of them. It happens at the most random time, too.

2. I forgot momentarily that the breakfast sandwich I got has bacon on it, so I was like, hey, surprise bacon! (The otom from Cafenation. I resisted the urge to get a red chili tea latte, because I should really wait until after I have my paycheck to buy more lattes…)

3. I just watched the most recent video release from Within Temptation’s new album. The song. I don’t like it. It sounds more like Nickelback-style pop-rock than their usual sound, which is at least close to metal–I know some metalheads argue that they aren’t metal, but, they are. It’s disappointing and makes me sad. Listen, I know they aren’t musical or lyrical geniuses or doing influential new stuff,  but I’ve mostly loved their sound in the past and so when they make a song I really don’t like, it’s sad. Everything else I’ve heard from this album so far seems much better than this one song, but we’ll see. Maybe I’ll just go back to listening to The Heart of Everything again…

4. I really need my money, so I can buy groceries, so I can eat real meals again. Nevermind about the bills and stuff, I just want to afford food that I’ll actually eat. Surprisingly enough, I am not really a fan of peanut butter and jelly or tuna sandwiches, and in the morning I really need things I can just grab easily and take to work with me, because who has time to eat before they get to work? Not me.

5. My habits and/or actions in the last… &$%^ years (unknown) suggest to me that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer after all. I have so many ideas and I am good at writing, but I have no motivation anymore, I never actually write. Plus, I don’t think I have the stamina for all the rejections writers supposedly get.

I’m awash in a sea of personal crises.

I am the Queen of Bad Timing

As always I felt a sudden surging urge to write, in the middle of the afternoon, when I can’t because I have to do the work I am actually paid for. I often think, good, I’ll go home and write. But I never want to write when I get home. Only when I’m, say sitting on a bus, or at work, or in the middle of watching a movie or a play. Some people might say I’m just being lazy, but you could look at my infrequency of writing as a product of bad timing.

I feel like this phenomenon affects many aspects of my life. Trying to take the T–a train is just pulling out as I’m halfway down the stairs, and I have to wait another 10 minutes for the next train. Getting that item at the store that I need or want–Maybe someone just took the last one (like the last time I bought sushi at Whole Foods, and had to get tuna instead of salmon because there was NO SALMON ROLL left). Buying something right before the price is reduced.

Even relationships, that is, actually becoming friends (or more?), depend on timing. And it’s very strange to consider how easily things could have been different.