How do you beat writer's block?
Submitted by marvel is my pen name .
I'm not really sure I believe in Writer's Block. There is "I don't really feel like writing, but admitting that doesn't sound as dramatic and serious as 'I'm suffering from writer's block.'" And there's "I really want to write. In fact, that's all I want to do. I don't want to go outside or do a damned thing worth writing about, and unfortunately - for the moment - I've run out of things to say, so that every drop of ink wrung from my pen looks like something the cat barfed up while walking across the keyboard. In fact, the cat wrote a whole novel last night and is currently tying up the phone line, talking to his agent. I wonder if Fluffy needs a manager?" There are other manifestations, of course, but most are variations on a theme. Some involve intense fear: Fear of failure, or fear of success. A good walk to clear the head, or time spent on an unrelated hobby (photography, drawing, playing a sport, building model ships and shoving them into bottles - whatever floats your boat) may help. Some involve a lack of skill or talent that can only be cured, really, through training and practice. Apply butt to chair. Write. Repeat. Enroll in a class, if necessary. Or find other things to do with your time. Maybe you don't really want to write, but someone's sold you on the notion that you must, in order to be a true citizen of the new Millennium. And if you just really feel a need to wear a beret and a turtleneck and sip black coffee in a coffee shop and scribble notes on napkins so as to be mistaken for a writer, go ahead; I won't tell.
You're not a failure in life if you're not a writer.
Some of us can't really do anything else competently, and rely on our words to support us and help build our retirement funds. But we have days when we don't feel like writing, too. We have days when we feel we've run out of things to say - or rather, things we think anyone cares to read. Amazingly, I earn a pretty decent income writing things I know only about three people on the planet want to read. Product manuals. Technical documentation. Next time you sneer and curse at the nameless author of a user's guide, you'll have a face to imagine behind it. Mind you, if it sucks eggs, I didn't write it; I don't do tech support, so don't call me when your toaster starts speaking in tongues and turns your bread into oatmeal.
It's hard to be "blocked" when writing instructions for using a piece of equipment. But that's my day job. By night, I'm an intrepid storyteller and poet (when I'm not cooking dinner for five; helping my 5th Grader with his homework, refereeing fights between him and his sister, or getting into one myself; writing in my blog; or walking, taking photos, engaging in other creative pursuits, and telling myself I don't believe in writer's block).
We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us*
I do believe in the evil inner critic. Sometimes, she masquerades as my evil inner Muse. Sometimes, giving her a good, swift kick in the teeth will jump-start a stalled brain, spur my itchy fingers into action, and result in a pretty decent yarn. Sometimes, it just results in my throwing myself across the living room couch, popcorn in hand, with no more resolve or strength of will than what's required to flip through channels and see what's on the telly.
Never mind all that. Facing down the evil inner critic - nay, making him or her the object of ridicule and creatively imagined torment - is a great way to forcibly shove aside this thing called "writer's block," because nine times out of ten, either you just don't want to write for whatever reason, or you're falling victim to the voice of the evil inner critic. She says, "You're not good enough. What do you think you're doing, mucking around with this 'writing' thing?" Or he berates you, "What a load of insipid tripe! You're really going to commit that to paper and let the world know what a fool you are?" Hogwash, all of it.
Well all have one. Perhaps you're due for a little chat with yours. If nothing else, it's great practice in creating characters and writing dialogue, so some good ought to come of it. Here's a flashback from 2004, my fourth attempt at that Marathon novel-writing session known as "National Novel Writing Month," or "NaNoWriMo" (which still sounds a lot like something a tired novelist says on November 29th: "Naaaah, no wri' mo'...me sleep now"). Ironically, the only novel I ever attempted and completed was my first, in 2001. Doesn't matter...I had a lot more fun with this one.
I seriously thought about quitting.
Then I recaptured the true spirit of NaNoWriMo. I remembered what it was all about: to write a truly hideous novel of 50,000 words in 30 days.
"Nobody said nothin' about 'publishable.' Nobody ever suggested that a 30-day novel should be 'great lit-rah-chure' (Gesundheit!)" my Muse snickered.
"What was I thinking, to put such expectations on myself at a time like this, when all the world's gone mad around me?" I cried, throwing a forearm dramatically over my forehead and letting out a piteous wail.
"That's the spirit."
My Inner Editor foamed at the mouth. Only, the foam came out the bitch's nose, since my Muse had had the foresight to bind up her mouth with duct tape.
"Look, you're an overachiever, but you're a burnt-out overachiever seriously in danger of looking like she's got a bug up her ass. So write this one just for fun. And if you must compete, consider it your entry into the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest next year." The Muse shrugged.
"That's just supposed to be one sentence," I said. I was pouting. I had my heart set on writing great lit-rah-chure.
"So write a novel that gives you nothing but hard choices as to which sentence you should enter."
"There are multiple categories," I said, warming to the idea. "I could have 'em all covered, by the time I'm done."
"There you go. Enter in every category. Just be sure to win a 'Dishonorable Mention' for me."
"I'll do it!" I sprang to my feet, energized. It took less than a NaNoSecond for reality to sink in. "Oh, God, I'm so far behind. All I have so far is three death scenes and an aborted suicide."
You can imagine the withering look my Muse gave me.
"I know that, Dear. It's pretty fucking pathetic, if you ask me." She picked up my daughter's TI-83 calculator and pushed some buttons at random. "Don't think of it as 'behind.' Think of it as an adjustment, from 1667 words a day to 2800 words a day. You can do that, can't you? I mean...if you're enjoying yourself."
"Can I use this conversation?" I asked. I was reluctant to admit it; it seemed so...puerile. But I was beginning to enjoy myself. Guilty pleasures are always the best kind.
"Will you take that thing away?" I asked, pointing at the Inner Editor. The IE growled and struggled against the ropes that bound her to her ergonomically-correct office chair. Gleefully, I smacked her over the head with an ergonomic keyboard, breaking the device in two. I dumped it into her lap.
"Absolutely." My Muse poured two glasses of cheap cream sherry and we raised them in a toast. "To fingering Bulwer-Lytton's proboscis in April!"
"Isn't that 'hear, hear'?" squeaked the Inner Editor, who had managed to bite through the duct tape with her jagged fangs.
"Good God. Does 'anal-retentive' have a hyphen?" sneered my Muse. Grabbing She-Who-Inspires-Writers-to-Write-Heinous-Scenes-of-Gruesome-Torture by the neck, my Muse saluted me and disappeared. The Evil One vanished, too, and I could breathe again.
I sat down to write...and this is what my pen barfed up.
Excerpt: The Muse and the Critic
Bob grabbed his laptop from the back room, and plugged it in. He settled into a comfy armchair and began to cogitate. The harder he thought, the fewer ideas occurred to him.
“Hey.” Bob looked up from the laptop. “Hey! Your hair’s on fire!” He started to jump up from his chair, but she pushed him back into it. “Lady, your hair is on fire!”
“It’s always like this, Bob.” She laughed.
Bob looked around frantically. Some crazy woman had set her hair on fire. With a little bad luck, she’d take Rayne’s shop with her - probably burning Rayne and Bob in the process. And yet, she was alarmingly calm about her flaming hair. Where the hell was Rayne?
“Relax, Bob. She can’t see or hear me. Only you can.”
The woman was insane. Either that, or Bob was insane. Had to be one or the other, he mused. Had to be. And that’s when he noticed that the hot-headed, almond-eyed stranger was a cross between Angelina Jolie and Pele, Goddess of Fire, dressed in a sleek black, skin-tight, flame-retardant bodysuit. Bob couldn’t help but lick his lips. She was the woman of his adolescent fantasies. She laughed. Bob concluded that he was the one losing his marbles. The woman didn’t exist. “Damn,” he muttered. “Who are you?”
“You know who I am!” said the woman, laughing. “I’m your so-called Muse. I’ve been looking over your shoulder since you were fourteen.”
“You’ve been what?” Bob looked up in horror. When he was fourteen, he’d figured out an easy way to forestall the urges that threatened to overcome him each time he laid eyes on a girl. It was a solitary pleasure, one he knew better than to do where others could watch. The thought of this creature looking over his shoulder…” He shuddered.
“Oh, Christ, Bob… I’m talking about your writing, idiot.” She ruffled his hair.
Bob groaned. She may not have watched over his shoulder constantly, but she could read his mind. That was just as bad.
“You created me, remember?” Her voice sounded smooth as silk and burned like whiskey. Bob felt dizzy.
Bob vaguely remembered doodling sketches of this woman - his supposed Muse - on his History spiral back in high school. Implausibly large boobs, curvaceous hips, a dancer’s legs, stiletto heels…but he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember flames for hair. Took some getting used to, but the warmth her tresses gave off was helping to dispel the tremors in his hands.
“Bob, you’re shaking like you’ve got the DTs.”
“I’m, um, wow. Yeah. Yeah,” Bob looked stupidly at his hands. The tremors spread up his shoulders and down his spine. He was ice-cold, and yet his skin burned.
“Bob, get a grip.”
Bob did just that. He gripped the armrests of the chair in which he was sitting. He gripped the faux hide of nauga until his knuckles turned a ghastly shade of white. “Could you - not - do that?” he asked, prying one hand loose long enough to point at the Muse’s hair.
“Whatever floats your boat, Bob.” Suddenly, an auburn-haired Angelina Jolie sat in the chair opposite Bob, and looked far less threatening than the incandescent goddess who’d stood before him a moment earlier. “Is this better?”
Bob nodded. “What’s your name?” It felt bizarre, having a conversation with what had to be a hallucination, albeit a gorgeous one.
“You named me Fred, Bob. It’s not my job to explain why you named me Fred.”
Given the thoughts Bob was having about the illusory Fred, this was disconcerting news, to say the least. He scratched his head, trying to remember why in the name of God he would have named this woman “Fred.”
“Frederica?” he asked, voice full of hope.
“No, Bob. Fred. Just plain Fred.”
“Sorry. You don’t look like a Fred.”
“Never did, Bob.”
Bob cringed. “And I was fourteen, you say?”
“That’s right, Bob. Fourteen.” Fred shook her head and looked down at her well-endowed chest. “Gads, I wish you’d learned to write when you were ten, or waited until you were twenty-something.”
“Isn’t that obvious?” Fred hefted her breasts with both hands. “Only a fourteen-year-old boy would endow his Muse with such…gifts.”
Fred’s hair burst into flame, sending Bob burrowing deeper into his armchair. “I’m sorry?”
“No, I can see that you’re not,” said Fred, her hair still smoldering. “So let’s cut the crap, Bob. You have a novel to write.”
“You see the problem with being a Muse created by a fourteen-year-old boy? It’s distracting, Bob. It’s keeping me from being all I’m meant to be.” Fred looked mildly annoyed, but at least her hair didn’t burst into flames. Bob was relieved.
“No, you don’t see. You’re just all fascinated because you can actually see me, and I look like some prepubescent fantasy doll…”
“No, no - I understand how that could be a hindrance. I’m sorry. I - I think I’ve matured since then.”
“No you haven’t.”
“Have to!” Bob was not about to sit here and be insulted by his own Muse. “Why, I--“
“Bob, get real. That deal you made with the cops, earlier? That was real mature.” Fred rolled her eyes.
“Oh, Rayne’s a good sport, she’ll--“
“Bob, do you have any idea how many guys are on the force? Rayne won’t be able to walk for a week if she makes good on her end of the deal.”
Bob snickered. Fred’s hair began to crackle and spark. He quickly tried to look contrite.
Bob woke with a start. A little old lady was leaning over him, smelling of lavender and potato chips. “Wha--?”
“Your laptop’s about to slip off your lap. I think you dozed off. Didn’t want it to fall on the floor, you know.”
Bob grabbed his laptop computer just in time to save it sliding off his thighs and onto the ceramic tile floor, where it would surely have broken into tiny bits. Although that might have saved Bob considerable trouble, it was an expensive toy he could hardly afford to replace, given his and Rayne’s recently precarious financial position. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Very kind of you.” He blinked a few times and rubbed the sleep sand from his eyes with his knuckles.
“No problem, son. No problem at all. Say, I couldn’t help but wonder what you were working on that put you so soundly to sleep. I suffer insomnia, you see. I’d love to learn your secret.” The old biddy chuckled.
Bob yawned. With his hands firmly grasping his prized possession, Bob was unable to stifle himself. His mouth opened wide. The only difference between Bob and a yawning cat was the cat’s needle-sharp fangs. And claws. And tail. But the yawn was similar, and from the look on the old lady’s face, she was a cat fancier. “Sorry. I was working on my, er, book. I’m a writer. Sort of a writer. I’m working on a novel. In my spare time, you know.”
“Ahhh. Yes, a writer. How nice for you, dear. And what do you do with the rest of your time?”
“I, uh, my wife and I, we run this shop.”
“Looks to me like she’s doing all the running. I’m Edna, by the way. And you would be…?”
“Bob. Very nice to meet you, Edna.”
“Really? That’s a first. Most people aren’t pleased. Not pleased at all.” Edna sat down in the chair across from Bob, a chair warmed, just moments before, by the enigmatic Fred.
“I can’t imagine that, Edna. You seem like such a kind soul.”
“Not at all, Bob,” said Edna. Her expression hardened as she pulled out her knitting. Her fingers moved deftly as the needles clicked and clacked. Knit and perl, perl and knit…Edna seemed hell-bent to burn her name into the Guinness Book of World Records by knitting what appeared to be a dingy gray and red woolen scarf in under three point two seconds.
“Why’s that, Edna?”
“Don’t you recognize me?”
“Should I?” Bob squinted to get a better look at Edna. Five foot two, maybe one hundred thirty pounds, Edna looked like somebody’s grandmother. A third grade teacher, perhaps, with her tightly-curled indigo hair. Bob had never understood why elderly schoolmarms insisted on dying perfectly good white or gray hair a hideous shade of blue that never would have occurred to Mother Nature to create from scratch. That’s it! Third grade teacher… Of course! Edna must have been one of Bob’s teachers.
“Oh, worse than that, Bob,” said Edna, as if reading his mind. “Your third grade teacher was a dear, sweet old woman. She didn’t have the heart to give you the D you deserved on that science report, so she gave you a C and package of crayons to soften the blow.”
Bob swallowed hard. “Who are you?”
“Edna Jacobi Pringleheimer-Smith. I’m your worst nightmare,” hissed Edna. Her eyes were dark and beady, but they smoldered with hate. “I’m your inner critic, Bob. I am a part of you.”
Bob suddenly had an urge to hum, but he felt his blood run cold. “Can Rayne see you?”
“Only if I want her to, Bob. You wouldn’t like that, would you? You’d like for her to think that you were a capable, talented man…”
“I suppose,” said Bob, trying to stifle another yawn. “What the hell is that?” Bob reached for the woolen scarf that was growing, in faster, tighter rows.
“It’s an afghan, Bob.”
“It looks like--oh, Good Christ, woman! That’s my third-grade report card.”
“Tsk, tsk. Says here you got a big fat F in English. Bob, English is your native language. You’d have to be dumb as a rock to flunk English.”
“Mrs. Denhameyer didn’t like me.”
“Didn’t like you? Didn’t like you? What sort of asinine excuse is that, Bob? Ranks right up there with ‘my mother beat me and my father drank,’ in my opinion. Cut the crap.”
“It’s true! She hated me.”
“No one hates a third grader, Bob. You’re delusional, to boot. But never mind that. Why aren’t you working on that stupid novel of yours? I mean, it’s not like you’re helping your wife out, there.”
* Walt Kelly, in the comic strip Pogo (1971).