Archives

All posts for the month February, 2015

One thing that really, really bothers me is when people, writers, over-simplify the problem of Writer’s Block. Like:

“Oh I just force myself to write and then I do, tralala”.

Or:

“Here’s a list of frufru prompts like “What if you woke up tomorrow as a butterfly – go!”.

I’m not going to say that those approaches don’t work.  Maybe for some people they do.  But Writer’s Block is not a virus you catch and then cure with a “take two and call me in the morning ” prescription.  Writer’s Block is a psychological condition.  It reflects a person’s life circumstances, their frame of mind and emotional state.  Its’ source can be simple (like, oh I don’t know, having work and home and family matters constantly vying for your attention and babies that won’t stick to a predictable nap schedule and snow days off of school that inevitably fall on the day you cleared so you could concentrate on your writing for the first time in MONTHS- just for instance); or, it could be deeply rooted and hard to define, let alone overcome.

Depression, Writer’s Block… Kissing cousins?

Sometimes, telling a writer “Just write,” is like telling a barren woman, “Just conceive.” For many of us, lack of inspiration is serious business that goes beyond a shortage of will power or ideas.  For many of us, Writer’s Block can be downright crippling.

I was given a couple of poetry exercise books for Xmas, the kind meant to help inspire you and get you writing. I only just now cracked one open – it’s been that kind of winter.

I’m very hopeful about getting something from these books; I was introduced to some of the exercises at the writing retreat in October, and went on to use them, successfully, for a week or so after, until the tsunami of real life reasserted itself.  Le sigh…

Instead of sitting down to bang out some proto-poems, though, I found myself snorting at a comment in the first chapter, and ended up here with a mini-rant on the topic of blasé attitudes towards Writer’s Block.  I guess you could say I was “inspired”…

The author starts out by confessing how he wasn’t writing much at all because he had no time and no inspiration.  One of the things he says helped him overcome the problem was making lists of ideas.  This, he says, eliminated all excuses because he could no longer “play the no inspiration card.”

While I can relate to the concept – and let me just say, I do think it’s a good idea, and I do it, too, and it helps – I just have to point out that having a list of “things to write about” is not the same as being inspired.

For me, having an idea – a theme, a setting, a premise, a haiku moment – is just tinder.  Yes, you can’t start a fire without it.  But what else can’t you start a fire without?

That’s right, kiddies.  A SPARK.

Hooded_crows_in_the_hood

How cool is this picture?

And therein lies the real problem.  The world is full of things to write “about”.  Learning to see them is a skill, like anything else.  It takes practice; writing lists, yes.  Free association.  Observation.  Journaling, recording dreams, people watching, eavesdropping. Recently I overheard someone say, “Once you start thinking about crows, you see crows everywhere.”

Ideas are crows.

But even if you have so many crows you can’t step out of your house without tripping over one, it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not inspired.

Inspiration is another animal entirely.  Inspiration is a non-quantifiable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it, enigmatic THING.  It’s either there, or it’s not.  Inspiration is why I tend to poo-poo the “Write about a time that you were mad,” kind of prompts and the “Just Do It” sneaker philosophy of writing.  Without inspiration, it’s all just tinder.  Or… crows.  Tinder crows.

So how DOES one set their crows on fire (now THERE’S an image for you).  Obviously, the answer to that is different for everyone.

For me, it’s like seduction.  Firstly, I don’t go for just any idea.  I like the smart ones, the weird ones, the ones that most people overlook.  The ones with lots of layers, inner meaning, a Jungian’s fantasy.

Secondly, it takes time.  I like to flirt with an idea for a long time.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes years.  I like a slow burn.

And the final payoff? Let’s just say it’s a magic combination of timing, setting, opportunity, and mood.  And coffee, or a cigarette, or… something to put in my mouth.  I’ll just leave the rest to your imagination.

 

Gnomes_plan

Step One: Write a List. Step Two: … Step Three: Inspiration.

But that’s just me.  For you, it might be something totally different.  Maybe lists ARE your thing – that neat, orderly, tantalizingly visual representation of thought.  Of… possibility.

Or maybe you’re into butterflies.  I mean, whatever – to each their own! My point is just that, as writers, we are all keenly aware of how personal the creative process is.

 

 

No matter what we write, or how, we invest so much of ourselves in it.  We are all beautiful unique snowflakes and, as it happens, some of us snowflakes have Writer’s Block and it sucks, so shut up with your platitudes already and have some compassion.

 

snowflake

My snowflake is cranky when she doesn’t write.

— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.

My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing.  My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today.  But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.

I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.

I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late.  Hahaha – no, really.)

And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully.  But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable.  It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch.  And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom.  That my words could go places I’d never imagined.  So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.

A budding young author circa 1993 – haha, look at me pretending to be straight-laced.

It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.

So when I heard that the Delaware Division of the Arts needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.

In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging.  Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.

Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD.  Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy.  I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.

I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis.  Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.

I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades.  Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.

I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days.  This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems.  I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.

In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.

I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate).  A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it.  Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.