1. Wake Up. The first thing to do is to recognize that you're blocked. It's possible to be wandering around avoiding the idea of writing without realizing you're doing it. It's like when you feel sluggish, lazy, or depressed, before you realize that you're getting sick. You must realize it's got you—the writer's affliction. Now the way you acknowledge it is key. You acknowledge it by acting, by sitting down to your desk and writing, "I'M BLOCKED." Remember that nothing counts until it's on the page. Writing, "I'M BLOCKED," is just the beginning. Next, you continue writing everything that's going on in your head.
In judo, you use the enemy's strength against him. So, not only do you write what's in your head, but you join in the attack. "I have no talent. I have no ideas. I'll never publish. I don't know what to do next in this story." You're already attacking yourself, so do it, all-out, full force. Get it all out there. Put it all down—just how stupid, unimaginative, and gutless you really are. Continue with that until you've drained it all out onto the page, where you can get a good look at it. Often, just reading it and seeing how excessive it is will give you some perspective, a bit of an edge on the problem.
Your relationship to an idea on the page is different from your relationship to an idea in your head. You're committing it to print, fixing it, putting it out there, outside yourself, so you can examine it and respond to it. Also, writing something down activates three times more nerve centers in your brain than you use just thinking about it. So, you engage more of yourself and of your awareness. Many people who don't normally write start writing things down when they're in a crisis in order to figure out what's going on, how they feel, and what to do about it. Also, going on record in this way can help you focus and limit your sense of the trouble. In your head, ideas float around, hide out, attack, take cover, etc.
2. Vent. Now do some ventilating;—ranting and raving, bitching and moaning, howling, purging yourself with what's wrong with this stupid, lousy, asinine process, etc. What you dislike, hate, despise about writing. How it makes you feel. What a waste of time it is. Why only a fool would waste time doing it, etc.
3. The Good. You did what's bad. Now write down what's good about writing. What you like or have liked about it in the past. Then, write what you want to happen right now. Then, write down what you would like to happen in the long run.
4. Back Door. The thought of sitting down and committing yourself to writing an actual story or even a scene may be too intimidating. But that doesn't mean you can't make some progress without actually laying it on the line and tackling the whole thing head-on. In this method, you don't start writing the actual story, but you write down what you'd like to write about once you get going again. You're just exploring the kind of story you might write, possible characters that might be in it, and the direction that the plot could take, maybe—once you get back to really writing again. Because there's no pressure to commit yourself or pin anything down, characters often start emerging, snatches of dialogue pop up, or full scenes begin taking place and larger portions of story start unfolding. So, by not trying, not committing, by just tossing it around on the page, the real thing often starts taking shape.
These first four steps are a unit. If at this point you're ready to work on a story, but still feel stiff, go to chapter 8, on rewriting, and follow the steps that start with WANT, OBSTACLE, ACTION.
If that's too much to face, apply the following solutions until you've recovered.
5. Burn It. Write as if no one will ever see your work but you. I call this the write it, burn it technique. You're going to write a few pages of a story, then destroy them.
6. Distraction. Write distracted. Write with the TV on. Write on the bus, in a crowd. Go to a busy restaurant and write. Now, you can't really watch TV or watch the crowd and write at the same time. In order to write, you have to close out the distraction. To close out distraction, you have to engage your organized, intellectual, calculating mind. Sound familiar? The editor, the one who's attacking, disabling, blocking you, is the part of your mind you use to close things out. So, you're preoccupying the editor (this lunatic that's run amuck) by giving him something else to do so you can get some peace and do some writing.
I worked with a journalist who used to go down to her busy office to write fiction, because she needed the hustle and bustle going on around her to help her keep her mind on her work.
7. Write Wrong. Since you're such an awful, untalented, uncreative writer, write a terrible story. Intentionally write the worst story imaginable. That should relieve the pressure to write well. Also, you cannot write beneath yourself. You're going to write the way you write. To write below your ability will take a lot of work—work you don't have to go through. The idea is to just get the flow going, to get yourself unblocked. In the course of writing this terrible story, you'll find yourself turning up ideas that aren't terrible, that have some potential. You can go with them if you want, or, now that you've made contact with your skills, you can go on to something else.
8. Piggyback. A Greek essayist and biographer named Plutarch who lived around A.D. 46 whom you probably haven't heard of wrote The Parallel Lives, which you probably haven't heard of either. His works were handed down through the years. In the 1500s a young playwright took many of Plutarch's story ideas and transformed them into his own plays. The plays were Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Antony and Cleopatra. Yes, Shakespeare "stole" the plots for these plays. In the broad sense, there's no copyright on plot—unless you do the exact same story. Older stories, classics, are fair game. You're free to retell them anyway you like. The Wide Sargasso Sea retells Jane Eyre from the point of view of the wife who was locked in the attic. Wuthering Heights has been retold from the point of view of Heathcliff. Great Expectations was retold in a modern setting. Ahab's Wife is a retelling of Moby-Dick from the point of view of Ahab's wife. Rosencranz and Gildenstern is a play based on two minor characters from Hamlet. Hemingway was told the story of a man alone in a small boat catching a giant fish, and he put a man he knew personally in as the character and wrote The Old Man and the Sea. Bernard Sabath, my friend and mentor, wrote a play in which Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn meet again in old age. (It was produced on Broadway, with George C. Scott and John Cullum as the stars.) Many stories have been written using God, the Devil, Christ, or other biblical characters (The Inferno, Paradise Lost). When you use the classics, you have the originals-the Bible, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Melville, Twain-working for you.
Now, the goal here is to get unblocked. So, you might fool around with putting Woody Allen in as Rambo or your uncle in as King Lear or your aunt as Madame Bovary or combining characters from different classics (Hamlet meets Gatsby). Remember Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein} Once you're unblocked, you can get back to what you were working on before you were disabled or continue with this or one of the other remedies that could turn into a full-blown project. If they do, then all the better. 9. Editing Your Way Back. With this approach, you get one of those cheap novels you find in a dime store or drugstore. They used to call them dime novels. They're often romance novels, and they're very poorly written. Get the worst one you can find, take it home, and edit it. You'll find plenty to do, cleaning things up, rewriting dialogue to make it more believable, and working conflict (want + obstacle) and action into every scene. Now, again, the goal is just to get unblocked, but if you really get absorbed in this task and find new dimensions for the characters and drama for the plot and go all the way through, it won't be the author's novel, it'll be your novel. You won't have to worry about plagiarism, and you'll be unblocked.
10. Quit! If it's so bad, so painful, so miserable, why not quit? I bring this up because I did it once. I'd only been writing for a few years, but I was quite serious about it. I wasn't writing much. My life was a mess, and I had little or no time to write, and I was agonizing about it. In the middle of it I thought, Why bother? Why torture myself like this? Who cares? Why not just quit? So I did, for about a day and a half. For the first day, even though I wouldn't have written anyway, I felt something was missing in me and in my life. Just the idea that writing was no longer a part of my life made me feel empty and adrift. Writing was my rudder, even though I wasn't doing it. But I didn't want to go through the punishment anymore.
About halfway through the second day I thought, Well, maybe I'll just do it for the fun of it. The fun of it? Fun, the reason I got into it in the first place when I took my first writing class and loved it. It was fun.
So, I didn't need to quit. I just needed to get back to the fun of it-to write what I felt like writing, the way I felt like writing it, and the hell with the rest of the world. And that must be true for you also. You must have experienced some pleasure in writing at one time. So, you need to remind yourself that it's OK to enjoy it, to play around, goof off, on the page-just for the fun of it. Not only will it be fun, but that's often when you do your best writing. Which brings us to an important point.
The less you care, the better you write. The harder you try, the worse it gets. It sounds strange, but the more you care, the harder you try to make your writing really good, the worse you write. So, don't be surprised if the writing you work your hardest to make really good turns out to be stiff and dull, while the writing you dash off on the spur of the moment and don't have time to think about or put a lot of effort into will be more alive and exciting. When you try hard, you're too conscious, too aware of what you're doing, trying for too much control. You're preoccupied with judging every move you make and that tends to make you tense up.
So, what's the solution? Stop caring? No, that won't work. Trying to force the tension away will only make it worse. You can't control your feelings, but you can control your actions. The solution is to just keep writing and writing and writing. If you write enough, you'll get past that tension and loosen up. The problem will solve itself. You'll be able to let go, to get out of the way and let it happen. Remember, you don't do it. It does you.
Ray Bradbury's solution, in his neat little book Zen and the Art of Writing, is to work, relax, and don't think. The way you learn to relax is to work and work and work. You tire yourself out so that you loosen your controlling grip on everything. You tire yourself out so you don't have the energy to keep fussing with your work, and you just knock it out to get it over with. The way you learn to not think (to not think the kind of thoughts that get you blocked) is to work, work, work. You help yourself by working, relaxing, and not caring. The less you care, the better you write. The harder you try, the worse it gets. So relax-you don't have to take it or yourself so seriously.
11. Sleeping Giant. When you're blocked, you are of two minds. One part of you wants to write, while the other wants none of it. You experience a tug-of-war within yourself. Two minds at least, maybe more. Sometimes it's more like a riot than a tug-of-war. Our concern here is with two minds—conscious and subconscious—and connecting the two. The subconscious is where most of our mind, our knowledge and our experience, resides-where imagination dwells. Only a small amount of who we are and what we know is in our conscious minds at any one time. We are and we know a lot more than what we are consciously aware of.
The subconscious is endlessly creative and full of great ideas, but it often acts more like an ingenious tease than the creative powerhouse that it is. The subconscious is capable of enormous work, but it's not waiting on the doorstep to be let in and put to the task. No, it's hiding out. It may be endlessly inventive, but it's also inherently lazy. If it's not made to work, it won't. The good news is, it's quite trainable. The techniques you use to train it are an excellent way of getting unblocked. In fact, much blocking happens because of this subconscious resistance.
You must do two things in order to train your subconscious. First you must get its attention, then you must condition it to be ready to go when called upon. The first, getting its attention, is accomplished by getting in touch with it. The best time to do that seems to be first thing in the morning, before you talk to anyone or read anything. Some call this morning pages or flow writing.
The first step is to begin writing as soon after you awaken as possible. Sit up and begin writing while still in bed, or go directly to your desk. The reason you do it when you have just awakened is that you're closer to your subconscious in that state. What you write is totally irrelevant as long as you write complete sentences and don't write the same sentence over and over. You can write about a dream, your plans for the day, what happened yesterday, your hopes for the future, your worries about the future, how much you hate doing these morning pages, and how stupid it is. Whatever's in your head is fine. Your thoughts can skip around. They don't need to have any particular focus or transitions to tie them together. Just write. Go steadily for 15 minutes or until you fill one page. (If you're not able to do this first thing in the morning because of your lifestyle or the way your mind works, then do it the first chance you get—before setting off in the car, on the train or bus, before getting out of your car in the parking lot, or get to work early and get a cup of coffee and do 15 minutes hiding out in a back booth of a coffee shop.)
Do this kind of flow writing until you can fill a page or more easily in 15 minutes. If you can spare the time, write until you can fill two pages in 20 to 30 minutes. If not, the one page is fine as long as you can start as soon as you sit down and continue through to the end without stopping, editing, or criticizing. When you finish these pages, do not reread or reexamine them in any way. Put them away and leave them alone until you've completed the second phase of the training.
The next step is to train your subconscious to be available, any time, any place, at the drop of a hat. This is the critical part of all of this. Morning pages and flow writing are popular, but those methods alone will not give you the kind of access you need to be fully creative. The way you do that is to schedule a 15-minute writing period during the day. So, if you know you're going to be free from 7:00 to 7:15 this evening for sure, make a date with yourself. When 7:00 comes, sit down and flow write for 15 minutes. If you get involved, you can write more, but the timing is the important thing in this phase of the training. Tomorrow, you will do the same thing, but it must be at a different time. It doesn't matter when you do it as long as it's at a different time. The farther away from yesterday's time, the better-at least two hours' difference, if possible.
The main thing is that you plan carefully so that your time will be free and, come hell or high water, you sit down and begin writing on the dot. Do not put it off for one second. You must never negotiate. If you negotiate, you're giving the subconscious the message that maybe you're not all that serious, maybe there's a way out. That's a bad message to give to an unruly child. If you give it the slightest opening, it will use all its genius to sidetrack you. You cannot afford to waver. That's why it's critical that you set the time when you're certain you can make it. Then, at the appointed moment, you must sit and begin writing immediately. Write anything you want, just as you did before. You can complain about how difficult this is, how much you hate it, how stupid it is, etc. You might write out orders to your subconscious to just shut up and get busy, etc.
Remember, the resistance is coming from your subconscious, which does not want to let go of its defenses and give itself over to the process. But the more you do this, the easier it gets. Taking the plunge will become easier and easier. Eventually your subconscious will be your partner rather than your adversary. Continue with this second part until you are able to do it without resistance. Then you can go on to whatever project you choose. You may want to go through all the pages you've filled in these exercises and see what you've got, or go onto something else.
12. The Invisible Enemy. Often when you're blocked, what's blocking you isn't visible. "I don't know what's wrong. I just can't get started." There's a problem or unanswered question that you're not aware of that's holding you back. I was once writing about a character who was getting off work and heading home from down- town. He was going to take the subway. At that point, I stopped and began staring at the wall. I didn't know what to do next, but I wasn't aware that I didn't know. I knew what was going to happen when he got home, but how did I get him there? It was a simple transition problem, getting from here to there on the subway, but how did I make the subway ride eventful and meaningful? That's what was blocking me, but I wasn't aware of it. So, I sat there, feeling stumped, not knowing what to do next.
After a half hour in the fog, I realized what was going on, that the ride on the subway was the problem, that I didn't know how to make the subway ride eventful, worthwhile. Once I was aware of the problem, I was able to solve it quickly. How do you imagine I got the character home? Well, I had him finish work, head for the door, and then I wrote: "When he got home . . ."
I eliminated the subway ride completely, along with the walk home from the subway, climbing the stairs to his apartment, fumbling for keys, opening the door, etc.-all of which might have been meaningful in another story, but not in this one-not for this character. At that time, as I saw it, I didn't need any of it. He went from his work to home, inside his apartment, in one short sentence. I could just as well have said, "After dinner that evening," skipping even more and getting away with it. Fiction is selective. In this case, something I didn't need to do but thought I did, something I was actually able to do easily (that's not always the case), had me stumped, simply because I hadn't made myself put the problem in focus, hadn't asked myself directly, "What's the problem here? What's holding me back?" My problem was that I wasn't aware of the problem.
Thinking that the subway ride was necessary was the first level of my problem. Thinking that I needed to make it eventful when I had no idea how and no interest in doing it was the other level. I sat there, unable to move, with a vague notion that I should do something even though I had no ideas and no desire to do it, and I wasn't fully aware of any of it. I wasn't aware because I hadn't said, "Exactly what is the problem here?"
Now, another writer might have done wonderful things with the subway ride. I might have also-in a different story with a different character. And even in this story, I might, in later drafts, have decided to use the subway ride. Nothing is final in this game, until you decide it is. The important thing here is that I couldn't see what was in my way, because I hadn't asked myself, "How do I get him home? What happens on the way?" And I especially hadn't realized that my problem was that I didn't know how to make this el ride worthwhile. And I hadn't asked, "Do I need it?" Once I did, I saw what the problem was and solved it easily.
13. Ask and You Shall Receive. Often we don't have an answer to what's in the way simply because we don't ask ourselves. The most common unanswered question is "What's my problem?" Just asking and answering that on the page will put you on the trail of the solution. You can't solve a problem unless you know what it is. Now, if you ask, "What's the problem?" and the answer is "I don't know," the answer to that is "My problem is that I don't know what's wrong." The next step is to work on solving that problem- in this case by figuring out, defining, what the problem is.
But what if you can't figure out what the problem is? What do you do then? Well, no matter how bewildered you feel, there's always a way to move toward a solution. When you are unable to define the problem, guess. Guessing is a wonderful tool. After all, guessing is a major part of creating fiction. Fiction is a game of wondering and guessing and imagining. So, when you can't figure out the problem, ask yourself, "What might it be? What are the possibilities?"
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