Ideas That Help

That doesn't mean ideas are worthless. They can work sometimes—especially with a mild case. (I'm contradicting myself, I know.) But you can't count on them to do the job. Stronger medicine is needed for a severe block. But ideas can help. They can loosen you up and make it easier to act. Here are some ideas that I've found helpful.

The Muse: What about the Muse? You know, the spirit or goddess who inspires writers and artists, the source of inspiration, a magical presence that pours wonderful ideas into your head. When ideas are flowing out of you as fast as you can think, when you can just barely keep up, when it feels like a voice is dictating to you, that's the experience of being in touch with the Muse. If you write enough, you will experience her, sometimes for brief periods, sometimes for long stints. It's a thrill. It's the kind of energy and surprise, in one form or another, that keeps us writing. But it's not something you can count on, something you wait around for, or something you need before you can start writing, or something you need to write well. Just as you don't wait until you feel like writing to do so.

The best way to connect with the Muse is to start writing, because the Muse is you. It's all a matter of getting in touch with what's inside of you and letting it out. Easier said than done. One reason this is difficult that I haven't touched on is that our culture, with its strict puritanical ethic, does not help or encourage us to get into that place in ourselves, because doing so requires letting go, giving up, being empty.

In our culture, we're taught to think things through first, to plan ahead, to outline, to know where we're going, to prepare, to be ready, and then to pay close attention to what we're doing and to be in control at all times. Actually, we are the worst for not letting go, for not valuing emptiness, randomness, for not seeing the value of not knowing. Control is your enemy for creating, for getting into the flow, for letting it happen. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you're in control, you're in trouble. Einstein said that all his great ideas "just came to him" when his mind was empty. Eastern culture values emptiness as the state of mind out of which all things come, especially ideas.

Our belief is that we must think in order to write well. We think in order to find our writing mind. That's the exact opposite of the way it works. We don't think in order to write, we write in order to think. We don't get in the mood to write. We write to get in the mood. We start writing to get our mind going, to uncover our ideas. We don't wait around for a feeling or an idea or anything else. We start with nothing. Your mind is full. You have volumes and volumes inside you, waiting to be uncovered (enough for twenty novels). Think about it. How much of you, of what you know and who you are, is in your conscious mind at any one time? One-tenth of 1 percent? Not much. Plus, your mind is never empty. It goes at 150 to 300 words a minute every waking hour. You always have ideas in your head. They may not be ideas you like, but your mind never stops. But if you're only trying for good ideas, you will have problems, because:

You Must Write Badly First: Expect to be bad. Scientists have studied successfully creative people and found that they had a lot more good ideas than everyone else and a lot more . . . what? Can you guess? A lot more bad ideas. They had a lot more ideas to chose from, because they let all their ideas out and didn't try to pick and choose between the good and the bad. The beginning writer looks at his first draft and says, "This is garbage. I'm screwed." The experienced writer looks at his first draft and says, "This is garbage. I'm on my way!" Unrealistic expectations and trying to do it right the first time are a major cause of blocking. Hemingway said, "The first draft is shit." So, don't expect to do better than Hemingway. Get busy and write some shit.

Falling Apart: Another thing that can bring on blocking is the falling apart that takes place when you're creating a story. At some point you lose track of where you are and don't know what to do next with the tangled mess in front of you. Not only is this falling apart painful, but for almost all writers it's a necessary step in the process. Yes. Falling apart is good. It's discouraging. It's maddening. But it's good. So, when it happens, pat yourself on the back. You've gotten to exactly where you need to go. You've gotten loose enough and produced enough material to lose your way.

Falling apart is inevitable, because you can't be open and loose enough to create and, at the same time, keep track and control of what's coming out of you and how it all fits together. Art comes from error. Uncertainty is good.

OK, but it's going to feel like a crisis. In crisis, we're open to trying anything and everything to survive. We're willing to try anything. Finding the order, putting it back together, is when good things happen. So, you're suffering, you're miserable, you're doing great. Once you get used to it, you'll be able to accept it and relax.

Organization: Organization is the last thing you need to worry about—ever. Why? Because you will find order in your story instinctively. That's what our species does. Human beings impose order on every damn thing they see. We have philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, etc., etc. We label, categorize, examine, measure, define everything. Ordering is our nature. That's why we get so nervous when we don't have it. The solution is to just keep working your material and let the order find you. You will organize your story whether you want to or not. You have no choice. So, it's a false issue. The real issues are always want, obstacle, action, resolution. The plan. Keeping your eye on the ball.

First Things When? Another thing that contributes to blocking is the feeling that you have to write your story in some sensible order (beginning first, etc.). It's fine to write the end or the middle first. You might write from the middle toward both ends, or inside out, upside down, or backwards. If when you sit down, you're not sure how to start, but you have a strong sense of the first big scene and are dying to do it, go there and do it. Respect your impulses. Go where your energy takes you, always. In the end, you will have to shape your writing into some meaningful form, but that's in the end—never in the beginning.

That's for most writers. A few are detailed planners. If that's your nature, do it. Remember, all of this has to be tempered with who you are and how you work best. This is art, not science. If it works, do it. And "do it" is where we're at. What do you do to get unblocked? Just thinking is seldom enough. Thinking might give you the edge on a minor block, but you will never think your way out of a severe attack.

Three things can block you: Story/craft: You have an idea for a story, but you don't know how to make the first move, or you're into a story but don't know where to go or what to do next or how to find the answer. Emotions: You get into a funk about yourself, your skill, your progress, the quality of your writing. Work methods: You're stumped because you can't figure out how to approach your story, where to take hold of it, how to organize it, or if there's some other way you should be going about the whole thing.

Simple, right? Well, not always. You don't always know what's blocking you. Even if you do, you may not know what to do about it. The problem may be one or all three of these things at once. You may know that, or you may just feel numb. Any of these problems can make you feel that way. It's not easy to know what's at the bottom of it. But you don't have to. All you have to do is treat them one at a time.

So, let's take work methods first. I've just addressed some of the work method troubles you may experience and given you some possible solutions (organization doesn't matter, plan or don't, etc.), but work methods are addressed in chapter 9, so if you're blocked in that way, review that chapter. If once you've figured out how to approach your work, things get moving, finally. But if you're still stuck, it just means that more than one thing was troubling you or that your problem has shifted. No matter. Just move on to the next solution.

Emotion: All blocks have a large emotional component. They all feel bad. Also, any problem can turn into an emotional block without warning, especially if you drift into thinking, What's wrong with me now? But what I'm calling an emotional block is a problem between you and you, how you feel about yourself and your ability, your self and your work, not about some specific work method or story craft problem. This is the most disabling and prolonged kind of block. You can either treat it directly (I will show you how later), or you can turn it into an issue of craft, which is the best way if it works. This is also the same thing you do if you have a craft problem, which means this is the solution for story craft problems also.

With this method, you ignore the emotional issues, set them aside as much as you can. They're still going to nag at you, but that doesn't have to stop you from acting. Remember, you can't control your feelings, but you can control your actions. (You don't get into the mood to write. You write to get into the mood.) Then you turn your emotional block into a problem of story craft. You do that by using some story material that you're working on or would like to work on. If you don't have any, pick one of the scene or full-story exercises from the course. You need a piece of writing to work on. It doesn't matter what it is as long as you have something. Then apply the story craft to it. You know the formula: want + obstacle + action + resolution + emotion + showing. The plan. Keep your eye on the ball.

Fine, but how? You might feel that you know, or you might not. Either way, I'm going to give you specific directions. All you need to do is to go to chapter 8, on rewriting. Go to the place several pages in where WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION first appear in large type. Follow it step-by-step. It's all laid out. If everything goes right, it will take you into a story and unblock you in the process. If everything goes right. But what if it doesn't? What if you're still stuck? Well, then you're in the midst of a stubborn emotional block, and you have to treat it directly. How? Read on. That's what the next set of remedies is for.

The first four points make up one remedy and are designed to ease you back into yourself and then into your story (even if you don't have one). Do them first, in this order, and don't stop until you've done all four or you get unblocked and move into working a story. This is the one time to do as you're told, whether you want to or not. That's because when you're seriously blocked, you're in no condition to be thinking for yourself or trying to judge what to do next.

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