Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Rx for Writer's Block, Part 2

Okay. Having somewhat recovered from The Migraine That Ate My Brain and borrowed a temporary replacement mouse, I'm back with some more thoughts on writer's block.

(A quick interjection first, however. I was telling Sister Girl about the evil in the MySpace banner ads and how it felled a million Internet Explorer users, mostly because I wanted to make her feel guilty for pulling MySpace up on my computer and causing all this in the first place, and she says, "Oh, well, I don't have anything to worry about, then--I use Firefox." When did my life become an O. Henry story?)

Part two: Feeding Your Head

This is the kind of writer's block where you've started writing, and you've written just enough to start feeling insecure about it. What I really I want to talk about is the word "original," which I think is responsible for a great deal of block on its own. In the sense that you're sitting at the computer going, "I'm basically writing the same old fantasy saga/coming-of-age tale/chick lit/detective novel that's been published a thousand times over. Why do I bother? Why am I even trying? I should pretty much stop writing altogether. I'm never going to think of anything new and original. Shit, I'm going to sell my computer on eBay RIGHT NOW."

The problem here is that your logic is both 1) correct and 2) faulty. I'm starting to think that "original" is one of those misunderstood words like "literally" and "unique" (something can't be "somewhat" unique or "very" unique, people! It is unique or it is not. THERE IS ONLY ONE, OR THERE IS NOT). Yes, "original" is a bit more fluid; it's used, perfectly correctly, to mean "new and fresh; creative." But let's think of "original," in this context, to mean "the first of its kind."

No. You are never going to come up with anything original.

Well, you might. Occasionally a new genre, like cyberpunk, does appear, but even new genres tend to build off previous genres. But basically, there hasn't been anything new under the sun since even before Shakespeare's time, so I'm pretty sure we're all fucked as far as originality goes. More to the point: no one is expecting you to be original.

They say they are; they use the word to describe books you wish you'd written. What they're really trying to say, I think, is that something is creative. The way I look at it, all the elements on the literary periodic table have been discovered. Yeah, they manage to isolate some wild new thing every now and then, but you and I are probably not going to invent entire new genres. When you're trying to write, stop worrying about your creativity at an atomic level--start thinking in terms of compounds, combinations, creation. Let's define "creation" here as the act of producing something from multiple raw materials. What kinds of works do you think of as being "original"? Or, better yet, in what way are they creative? I suspect you'll find that they've combined different pre-existing elements to create something "new and fresh." Firefly? Space opera + western + dash of Chinese influence (or so I'm told). Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? Fantasy + real (and non-medieval!) historical setting. Harry Potter? Not even the first boarding school + wizards book out there. And this is just off the top of my head. This is where your (and my) logic is faulty: you're not going to think of anything "original," but no one's asking you to. You say "original," and I feel blank terror: I can't. You say "creative," and I see possibilities: I can.

And it doesn't even have to be high-concept creativity ("It's like Dracula in space!"). But creative recombination may be exactly what you need once you've gotten yourself writing, and you find yourself losing steam. This is where my theory that a writer needs to balance her input and her output comes in. Whenever I feel empty, either because I can't start writing or because I've just written myself out, that means I need new input. This is where you'll get the atomic elements you'll need to stockpile for a rainy day:

1) Research. Of course, I say this as someone who reads biographies for fun. Whatever you're writing about, go read up on it. If you're writing about something that does not actually exist, i.e., fantasy, go find something reasonably close to draw inspiration from. I find that nonfiction is particularly helpful because of the real-life anecdotes, the particulars, the odd details that you can squirrel away for later, for completely different contexts. My brain is still sort of twitching helplessly at the moment, but off hand, I remember thinking that Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead is a goldmine of character quirks. But you can get the same kind of input from documentaries or even Dateline NBC. A couple of weekends ago there was a Dateline about a woman in Atlanta (I think it was?) who poisoned both her husband/boyfriends with antifreeze, which, number one, excellent plot point; number two, it described how she courted them relentlessly (her former sister-in-law said that she thought the woman was in it for the thrill of the chase mostly), and gave the men nearly identical expensive gifts. She gave both of them expensive cowboy boots, for example. I loved that. I loved that she made the first husband moonlight at a convenience store so she'd have enough money to take her secret boyfriend to NASCAR races. I mean, I'm not pleased that bad things happened to real people, but I sat there thinking, "I could not make this up. I seriously could not. Thank you, crazy lady." The other thing I loved was the way the family of the first husband, a motorcycle cop, loathed the woman from day one, and when he turned up dead, the first thing every single person interviewed said was, "How'd she kill him?" And she still got away with it for years, and probably would have never been arrested had she not gone and poisoned her firefighter boyfriend. Yeah, the same one she took to the races. And none of this is the typical suspense storyline, you know? Everyone immediately suspects her, she's not a sexy-brilliant femme fatale, it's the working class South. And for all that--probably because of all that--it's a hell of a lot more interesting.

2) Contrast. Whatever you're writing about, when you have the time, go and read something wildly off-topic. If nothing else, it gives your brain a rest. Movies often fall into this category as well. The thing is, if you've got your project in the forefront of your mind the whole time, you may very possibly make some startling connection between what you're escaping with and what you're working on. The Dateline example could work here as well--let's say I was writing something set in the present, about a suburban family, but with other minor characters in the background. Actually, it could be any kind of family, in any time period--Victorian era, middle-class; golddigger, arsenic. If you could find a way to work it into the main narrative instead of seeming like a random tangent, the Lady Who Killed Her Husband (And Everyone Totally Knows It) could be a great minor character, and one you wouldn't have thought of, except for the fact that you happened to be watching TV on a Sunday night.

3) Classics. So we have things that are like what you're writing, and things that are not. Classical archetypal things fall into a third category, in the sense that they permeate everything: mythology, Biblical allegory, the classic books and plays that are almost mythology unto themselves (how often do we use "Romeo and Juliet" as shorthand?). I particularly like mythology, because there's so many cultural variations. In fact, yesterday I was reading about the Whac Chan, the Mayan tree of life, and came across this sentence: "Erich von Däniken proposed the alternative interpretation that the sarcophagus of [King] Pacal depicts the king departing the Earth in a space craft," rather than simply showing the tree sprouting from his body. And suddenly, you realize where some of the idea for The Fountain [Mayans + space exploration!] must have come from. But really, any myth or legend can serve as a basic structure to hang new clothes on; what's West Side Story but Romeo and Juliet on the wrong side of the tracks?

The one thing I will say is that when writers' guides and teachers and workshops tell you that Reading Is Fundamental, they are absolutely right. That you can believe with all confidence, because it's where you'll find all these acorns of usable material to tuck away for later. But I think it also involves reading with a writer's mind--taking in the world around you, the movies you see, the TV shows you watch, the news you hear on the radio--with an eye and an ear for things you can break down into smaller pieces and carry away to your nest like shiny beads, to add to your hodgepodge collection and reassemble later as a completely different necklace. Or something.

Next installment, whenever that turns up: using structural elements to figure out what has to happen next.

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Tags: advice, rx for writer's block, writer's block, writing

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