Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Here Are a Few Quick Suggestions
For Blasting Through Writer's Block

I've only mentioned Linkedin once before, but perhaps will be referring to it more often in coming months. I call it the Facebook for adult professionals, though I recognize that many (including many of my friends and colleagues) swear by it for social networking. But my tool of choice (along with this blog, naturally, which is the crown jewel of it all) is Linkedin, which facilitates all sorts of things, including widening my circle of friends, readers and collaborators. One of the many features I like about it is the way it empowers peer learning, which is generally the best kind. I occasionally answer questions from strangers about subjects I know a little about, and other times I read answers from those who know far more than I do about various topics. After I answered one about how to deal with writer's block (naturally a recurring topic there, as well as here), it occurred to me I ought to post it here as well.

I think writer's block is generally a result of one of two things: either having nothing to say (in which case, why bother writing? An existential question without any real answer) or (far more often) being frozen by having too much to say, only having it all scattered throughout your brain. Too many writers try to figure it all out in their brains before downloading it onto a screen or a page, which I think is generally their main problem. To get started, you just need to start writing, without worrying about what order it's all in, or how good it is in the first draft. As long as you get something down initially, it's always MUCH easier to go back and revise and improve, once you have something to revise. It's going from nothing to even the sketchiest something that's generally the problem. So simply begin somewhere, and you'll feel steadily more encouraged to keep at it once you've begun.

There are a bunch of tried and true methods of breaking through a block: beginning with an outline composed only of a few bullet points, which you can then begin putting in the right order, and from there expand upon, until you have the beginnings of a piece of writing. Others find they can tune up their brains and typing fingers by reading something else first (though plenty of writers don't want to have another writer's voice in their head when they sit down to do their own writing). Yet others swear by listening to music to get them in the mood, or (my favorite) perhaps going for a run or even a brisk walk to get oxygen flowing to the brain. Whatever works for you, find what that is and do it. Pretty soon your writing brain will become accustomed to the routine, and know it's time to write. Dedicating the same time each day to writing further helps the brain develop that muscle memory. It may take you years, but perhaps only a few months to really get mentally toned.

Lastly, just about all prolific writers have a large and ever-growing storehouse of material from which to draw when they sit down to write, which also is a big part of breaking through any block. If you're in the habit of jotting down stray ideas as they come to you, collecting interesting articles, stray pieces of dialogue you hear in conversations, on TV, in movies, etc., or making notes on a vivid statistic you read or heard on NPR, you may soon have an overstuffed writing room groaning with files and scraps of paper, but you'll also begin magically (or not so magically) finding that writer's block has become a distant memory. Good luck!

(for earlier mentions of this subject, you can go here. And if you're a reader, don't forget to connect with me on Linkedin, should the spirit move you. If you're not already using it, do give it some thought).


At 2:59 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'll never be able to get down every idea I have. I do well at getting down only half of them. Most ideas never get developed, and some never get notated. Life's too short.

But that's not a problem. I'm already disgustingly prolific, with more output than I know what to do with, in so many directions that I have a hard time tracking it all, myself. I suppose I need a secretary to manage the interface with the world. Actually, that would be good, because it would free up more time for Making. LOL

At 3:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, Art, I think we've long since stipulated that you're not the norm in anything. On the other hand, I do know a handful of writers who are perhaps more like you than not, although your unique addition is all the other mediums in which you express yourself, from photography to music. That does make for a wild and interesting blend, and they no doubt spill over into each other in helpful ways. In many ways, it's simply a throwback to the classic Renaissance person, whose creativity takes various forms. As someone who can't draw a good stick figure or play a note myself, I do envy that.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

They do slip over the spillway, it's true. That's why I talk about crop rotation and letting some creative fields lie fallow while one farms elsewhere.

(Actually, Joni Mitchell was my source for the crop rotation analogy; she talks about how she always turns to painting after finishing a music album, to clear the head, and to do something different for awhile. I think that's brilliant. It certainly seems to keep blockages away, for her.)

Crop rotation for me has always been the way past any creative blocks, esp. writer's block. I don't believe writer's block is really, well, necessary. Maybe for some folks it's an important and fertile period or process—a fallow period—for their work. But is it necessary? That might be worth thinking about some more.

I grant that my experience could be so idiosyncratic as to be completely useless to anyone else. LOL I can't help chiming in, though, it's always an interesting topic. Sorry if I'm out of line.

You and I should teach a course on this someday, maybe. :) I know lots of "shaking the cobwebs loose" tricks, gained from experience. It's one reason I recommend artists AND writers take up brush calligraphy: it's really great at getting one outside the box one thinks one is (trapped) in.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think it would be cool (and appropriate) to collaborate, Art. Maybe next time you mosey through town (damn how I missed you last time!) I'll draft a friend to come along with a video cam or flip cam and capture us yapping away about this or that subject. I think that might be the best way to capture your manic, restless creative and intellectual energy. We are hatching plans around here to begin regular/occasional/frequent/your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine podcasts & videos related to our subjects. After all, we writers need to follow storytelling down every path and medium. And so I need to model that behavior (already encoded in one of my many mantras) better.

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Jane Levesque said...

All of your suggestions are good ones, John. The one that works best for me is having a notebook of ideas. Ideas don't always come to mind at convenient times, but you can capture them quickly and revisit them later in more detail.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jane, in her standard hyperorganized manner (I was once lucky enough to work closely with her as a trusted editorial colleague) has added a crucially helpful detail to my less organized note-taking (and filing) habits by introducing the simple concept of putting it all in a notebook. What a concept! For some writers, that means spiral-bound notebooks(echoes of grade school? They are for me), for others it's legal pads (try to lose the yellow ones, which are apparently not so environmentally sensitive), and for the coolest among us (sadly, not me) it might well mean a Moleskine. However you do it, just make sure you do it. And if you get a chance to have someone like Jane help you get and/or stay organized, so much the better, obviously.

Anyway, thanks for adding that, Jane. We'd love to hear how y'all keep your notes and files. The best story we hear may well win some lucky reader and commenter a prize: one of the aforementioned Moleskine notebooks (famous in part because it was a favorite of Hemingway's, and for you visual artists, Picasso). If you're so inclined to allow us to repost it with your byline, we'll do that as well. Just make it good, interesting and personal. Long, short, whatever feels right. Just send it to us by email, post it in the comments below, or hell, send it via pack mule through the Khyber Pass if that's your preference. Just send it in.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Kim said...

John, something else I see you are extremely proficient at is ENGAGING in written conversation.

What better way to learn indeed you have something to say than to interact? I think writers fall into the trap of locking themselves into a cubby and not coming out until they've written something.

Solitary confinement does nothing to unblock a writer. I think blogs are a perfect vehicle for unblocking. I find such inspiration when I interact with other writers.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've said a mouthful, Kim (and here's hoping we'll be able to meet in person before too long). I've said it before but will say it again: writing is just like breathing. You have to both inhale (take in your surroundings, engage, watch, learn, listen, etc.) before you exhale (the actual written product). One without the other doesn't work. If you're a great exhaler but lousy inhaler, or vice versa, you still die, right? And writers who don't take in enough stimulation, impressions, learning, wisdom, inspiration, etc. have nothing much to write about.

And writers hanging with their own tribe is possibly even more essential yet. After all, who really understands what we do and why than fellow scribblers? Nobody, often including parents, spouses, children, best friends, etc. So it's essential we stay in touch, virtually but also in person.

Which brings me of course to plans in the works for Working With Words Live, a series of salons for conversation, peer learning, tip sharing, highbrow (or possibly middlebrow) gossiping, whatever. More about which soon (how nice of you to give me that opening, Kim!).

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Kim said...

Once summer has passed and I have bigger chunks of time, I hope to participate some more in the local networking events that LinkedIn offers. I'm positive at some point our paths will cross.

I completely agree with you about the Tribe of Writers, we know why we *must* write the same way engineers know why they *must* solve problems.

I look forward to your WWW Live, it sounds like a brilliant idea!

At 12:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

My, how fast the summer is going by. Almost over, and it seems to have hardly begun. Surely not like when I was a kid, playing baseball all day, for what seemed like a season slow as mollases. Now, it just races by.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Kim said...

and so it goes... the conversation has come full circle, I found some inspiration in this dialogue:

Thanks, John!

At 1:59 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kim, you've said something that resonates with just about every parent of our generation, who wonders how we became the kiddie schlepping service (to use a uniquely wonderful Yiddish word) rather than letting our kids do more exploration on their own, as we did. While some of that has to do with the greater sprawl in which many of us now live (thus making the distances longer than kids can reasonably travel by foot or bike), the bigger part of the answer is greater contemporary concerns over safety. But the reality is that on average, kids are basically just about as likely to come into harm's way now as we were then. The huge difference is our very different generational assessments of the risks. Much of the fault for that, alas, lies with the shrill, alarmist media of today (and of course we have much more of it), which leaves people thinking the risks are far worse than they really are.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

It occurred to me I was thinking, in part, about this interesting article when I responded to the conversation here. You might find this interesting:


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