Friday, June 1, 2012

Simple Cures to Writer's Block: Fresh Writing and the Brainstorming List of Ideas

Writers produce writing.  We wait for inspiration, yes, but we eventually write.  Writing is not about the waiting; it's about the actual words on the page.  

And if you're contemplating a book, you need pages of it, produced regularly and methodically.   

So there must be writing practice as well, and good methods to overcome the negative self-talk of the Inner Critic, for your dream to be realized.   

Happy is the writer who has this rhythm.  She or he can click along, getting the writing done.  The pages pile up; there's a real sense of accomplishment.   

Then the writer hits an obstacle.  It might be as simple as starting a class where you find yourself in deeper water than you're used to swimming.  Maybe you have to share your raw efforts.  Maybe you are asked to read a good book and it puts your own writing in a different light--"Listen to that dialogue!  I'll never be able to write like that."  You compare yourself to your dream, and come up lacking.   

Slowly the regular writing rhythm changes, and the pages each day get shorter.  Ideas seem to dry up.  Eventually, if this isn't caught early, the writing stops.

We're all familiar with this infamous disease.  It's called writer's block.  After a few days of it, a week or a month, it's hard to even remember how to craft a sentence.    

Cures to Writer's Block Are Pretty Simple 
Keeping your creativity alive and flowing is the best cure to writer's block.  I've learned that even more important than production of pages, the successful writer must find a way to tap into this creativity each day.  This is actually what holds up that nurturing rhythm, that allows you to produce those pages that eventually become a book.

The goal is to learn how to keep the well filled, without exhausting your creative energy.  

Sounds like a no brainer.  Often, it's terrifically hard to put into practice.   

But I've found two techniques that allow me to pay attention to the internal process behind the writing:  techniques that keep me open to explore all the new avenues that my book journey presents.

My two techniques are:

* fresh writing every day
* keeping a brainstorming list of ideas 

Fresh Writing Every Day 
Even when I am knee-deep in editing a book, I try to produce fresh writing every day.  It keeps my Inner Critic at bay.  It keeps me alert, energized, and discovering.  Basically, it makes sure most of my writing is reasonably good. 

How much is enough? New writers can start out writ­ing a couple of paragraphs, building gradually to two pages, about 500 words, per sitting. Two pages is just enough to engage the creative self but not overwhelm it. It's fine to keep the pages unpolished--and eventually you'll get into a rhythm of lightly revising as you go. The goal at first is simply to build stamina for your writing practice.  The momentum of the practice gets you enthused, and once you are producing 500 words regularly, you might find yourself upping it to 800. How about 1000?

Fiction and memoir writers might spend their two pages on a short scene, a description of character or setting, or even a list of unanswered questions about their story. Nonfiction writers can use this time to build research facts into interest­ing prose, or develop anecdotes to illustrate a theory.

Note to those who love to edit their work:  It's important to make sure revising time doesn't replace fresh writing. If you find yourself wrestling word choices, try a freewrite to get the creative flow moving again.

Getting started can be a challenge.  Anne Lamott, author of the modern classic on writing, Bird by Bird, has an empty one-inch photo frame on her desk. When she sits down to write, it reminds her "all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame." Once you start with enough fresh writing for this short assignment, you may find yourself easily writing more.

Don't worry if it's any good--we often can't tell when we're producing writing that's fresh. We don't have the per­spective because we're too engaged. Plenty of time for the editor self to judge that later.

Your eventual goal is simple: two pages, every day, with depth and meaning. You'll be amazed at how quickly they become enough to make a book.

The Brainstorming List of Ideas 
One of my students is a professional journalist, with many awards behind him.  He's writing his memoir now, and when he got really stuck a few months ago, I suggested he begin a list.   

He was to write down all the top­ics he might want to write about.  Important:  Don't edit or censor them, and include the ones that terrified and bored him.  Even topics that might not end up in the book.  Everything went on the list.

He did.  With some reluctance.   

Once he had the list in hand, he found himself adding to it quite often.  He still was stuck, but his imagination was getting involved again.  After a few days of jotting down ideas, he had over thirty.  And there were a few he couldn't stop thinking about so he sat down one morning before the family got up and jotted down some notes.   

Of course, you know the end of this story.  The notes got him more interested.  And soon he was writing.   

And he still is.  He hasn't gotten writer's block again since.  He told me the list insured he always had something to write about every day that was relevant to his memoir.

He gave me permission to share some of his list.  Although it won't make sense to anyone else, it gives you an idea of the kinds of things that can be included:

red flannel shirts with leather elbows
disgust with spuds
Uncle S. and his smelly pipe
laughing too hard at the dinner table
rain on dirty windows

I recommend all book writers start keeping a brain­storming list. It is the key to connecting your current life, your interests, passions, fears, and hopes, with your book. It enlivens the material with you. And best of all, it keeps you writing regularly.

Brainstormed ideas don't have meaning at first--not until they're written about. As E.L. Doctorow said, "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your head­lights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Like imag­es caught in headlights as a car passes by, or like notes taken from a dream fragment, certain phrases or words encapsulate complete scenes you'll develop later.

Note: For the list to work, you need to jot down enough to jog your memory.

Keeping a brainstorming list is an ongoing task. I sug­gest adding to it at the end of each writing session. Use it throughout your book journey. The last few pages of my writ­ing notebook are reserved for my list, where it's easy to lo­cate. Some writers start a computer file for their lists, adding one or two new items every writing session.

It's important not to censor your list or eliminate top­ics that don't seem to "fit" the book. This is not the time to decide. Often your Inner Critic is talking you out of a deli­cious clue from the right brain: an insignificant image that finds its way to your list may become the very thing you need to bring emotion to an otherwise dull scene.

Ready to try it?  Here are the steps.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  Get out your writer's notebook or open a new document on your computer, saved to your desktop or some place you'll see it frequently.

2.  Write down 5 topics you're interested in writing about, that could possibly be part of your book or current writing project.  Don't censor the ideas that come--even if they seem off base right now.

3.  Save this and walk away for an hour.  Come back and add 3 more ideas.  

4.  Do this until you have 25 listed.  

5.  Pick one topic from the list and set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes.  Begin freewriting on it, again not censoring what comes through.  

6.  Repeat each day for 1 week.  See what you get.