Writer’s Block: Wednesday Workshop

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Writer’s Block

Every day, well, almost every day, I meet people who tell me that they cannot write anymore. They have abandoned their current project. They sit in their work space and stare at blank screens or empty walls. They have come face to face with the dreaded Writer’s Block.

While some consider Writer’s Block to be an actual illness, others flaunt it like a flag or a badge of honor:

“Don’t touch me — I’ve got Writer’s Block: I wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

“I’m having a bad week: I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

“Sorry, I can’t make the writer’s meeting, I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

According to Wikipedia, “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.”

We have probably all experienced the sensation of being unable to write, unable to think, unable to continue. As an academic, I found that something similar happens frequently in examinations with young students whose minds suddenly go blank when faced by a white page and an awkward question. This form of Writer’s Block comes at the most unfortunate times. Students need to be switched on just when their minds switch off. And something similar happens to writers.

Examination Block can be overcome. In many cases careful preparation for an exam will reduce or eliminate examination block. These preparations may well include correct note-taking and relevant revision procedures. There should be no last minute all-night study the night before the exam and a good night’s sleep, proper food, and water are essentials. Appropriate physical exercises before the exam starts are also useful as these make the heart beat and the blood flow. All these things prepare both body and mind and free the student for that most important task: the struggle with the blank page and the awkward question.

Will a similar set of preparations work for those who suffer from Writer’s Block?

In order to answer this question, I would rather take a different approach. Instead of seeing Writer’s Block as a physical / mental presence that stops us writing, why not look at it as an absence that can be overcome? What can we call that absence? Personally, I look upon it as an absence of creativity. If the creativity isn’t there, then writing creatively won’t happen. So what do we do?

Let us define creativity. For me, creativity is the expression of the creative principle that dwells within all of us. It is there, within us. We may suppress it or we may let it be suppressed. We may ignore it or we may deny it: but it is still there. It is always there. Sometimes it is beaten out of us; or we think it is. But it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting to be called on. The Roman poets spoke of it as Deus est in nobis … the god that dwells within us.

Creativity, for me, is like a river that vanishes underground and then reappears: it will be back.

The most important thing in my opinion is what you do when you’re not writing, what you do when you’re faced with that wall of blackness, what you do when you stare at that blank screen and nothing makes your fingers dance on the key board.

Here’s what I do. I make up my mind not to force myself to be creative. Forget about writing. Do something else. Ignore all idea of Writer’s Block, or the End of the World, or the Imminent Disaster of not being able to write. It may take a mental effort, but forget about it.

Now do something else, something positive. Different people respond to different stimuli. Here’s what I do.

(1) I read books
I read other people in their creative moments. I love reading people who write in other languages that I speak and read, because my own mind tries to recreate their images, their stories. This re-creation is a form of creation in itself. New words, new ideas, new combinations, rise to the surface of the mind, like bubbles on a river.

(2) I color and draw
As any who have seen my drawings know, I cannot draw. However, I can take a line for a walk. And that’s what I do. Then I color the spaces I create. My friends thought I was wasting my time and I believed them until I read one of Matisse’s sayings: “My ambition: to liberate color, to make it serve both as form and content.” Voilà: I have my raison d’être. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you create a space, color and meaning rush in.

(3) I take photos
The capturing of a moment: a sunset, a new bird at the feeder, deer wandering through the garden, a black bear visiting, rain on a spider web, sunlight through a prism, a cat made out of cherry stones … the re-creation of the moment is the creation of the memory. More bubbles flow on the surface of the stream.

(4) I go for a walk, look at nature and the world around me, people too
It is incredibly important to do this. A visit to the local coffee shop, a walk around the super-market or corner store, a seat in the park on a sunny day … just be yourself, believe in your existence, watch things as they happen, relax, look and listen, empty yourself, let the world flow back in … look at the ducks on the lake or the goldfish in the tank … more bubbles on the water, more ideas floating down the stream …

(5) I listen to music
De gustibus non disputandum … we can’t argue about taste. Where music goes, each person must make their own choices. The music I like fills my mind, relaxes me, flows out when it ends, takes my mind for a walk and leaves … a vacuum … into which dreams and colors, words and ideas, build like clouds …

(6) I cook
Cooking has always relaxed me. Sometimes the repeating of an old recipe helps clear my mind. Sometimes I have a need to invent something new. Hands and mind occupied, the secret, sacred underground river of creativity flows on …

(7) I sew
Last summer, an unexpected event led me to join a quilting group … oh what fun … a man quilting among a dozen women … I learned so many things … so many different ways of looking at the world … so many concepts that I would never have dreamed of on my own … Sewing runs in the family: I still have my grandfather’s sewing kit … darning and sewing needles that served him for two years before the mast … that darned his socks as he survived in the trenches of the First World War … it bears his name and I use it with pride … and what memories arise in my mind as I choose the needle … his needle … the one that will lead me into the next adventure, be it quilt, button or patch …

(8) I keep a journal
… and come hell or high water, I write in it every day and have done so since 1985. That’s 31 years during which I have scarcely missed a day. The writing maybe banal, it may be nothing but a note on the weather or a comment on a sporting event … but it’s there … a vital challenge to the idea that Writer’s Block can take me over and stop me writing. This journal is 95% drivel … maybe more … but bobbing along the stream of words are ideas, verses, rhyme schemes, choruses, stories, flashes of inspiration, jokes, memories, magic moments, falling stars, … the secret is to catch these falling stars, to recognize these rough diamonds and to return to them and polish when the moment is ripe … and it will be, sooner or later … for bubbles are buoyant and will lift you to the stars.

(9) Free Writing and the Creation of Metaphors
I also use the journal for free writing and automatic writing. These techniques, drawn from the Surrealists, allow the mind to wander at random. While wandering, the mind creates an interior monologue or a stream of consciousness that in fact turns up a series of delightful metaphors that can be polished and re-used at will. When I use this style of writing, I am reminded of Dalí’s saying (again and as always, from memory): “I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something.” My own theory of metaphor is that the metaphor is defined by two (sometimes more) points and rather than settling on one or the other (as in a simile), the mind moves and flickers sub-consciously between the two extremes so that meaning is sensed, but rarely can be grasped or stated in definitive terms. Thus, the marvelous line from André Breton, quoted by Mr. Cake,  “The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow” has, according to my theory of metaphor, four defining points, namely, wolves … clothed … mirrors … snow. All four of these defining points creates an image, a very personal image, in the reader’s mind. The mind moves quickly between each defining point and meaning is lost in the rapid shift from image to image. Quite simply, “the hand cannot grasp it, nor the mind exceed it.” This means we have to return, as readers, to the unconscious level where the metaphors were first created. Then: “when we no longer seek it, it is with us.” This same analytical exercise can be performed for each line of Breton’s poem. When we indulge in free writing, much of what we write can be abandoned. The secret is to recognize and rescue the little gems we so often find.

(10) I believe
Through all this runs a thread of belief … belief that the black cloud of despair will not win. The Writer’s Block will go. Creativity will never be not lost. It is there, beneath the surface, always ready to be contacted, waiting to rise and take you over again. And all too soon and quite unexpectedly, one form of creativity slips into another and the creative writing (it never really went away because of the journal) comes back.

Writer’s Block: it does exist. It’s how we deal with it that’s important. Creativity rules: forget Writer’s Block and let creativity and the multiple ways back to creativity grow and flow. Sooner or later the clouds will lift, the sun will return, the block will unblock and the words will flow again.

Remember the words on the Roman sundial: Horas non numero nisi serenasI count only the happy hours. And remember: the clouds will lift, the sun will return.

Trust me.
And believe.

Comment:
I first posted this entry on 17 August 2016. Since then it has received a number of hits and comments. Today, I have revised it and tightened it slightly, but the main ideas remain the same. I will try and continue with my Wednesday Workshops on a regular basis throughout 2017. Wish me luck.

Ownership: Whose poem is it anyway?

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Whose poem is it?
Fictional Friends
Saturday, 17 September 2016

Ana, Anna, BettyAnne,
David, Jane, Lachlan, Margaret, Neil,
Roger

            I spent a happy two hours on Saturday afternoon in a literary workshop with a group of Fictional Friends. We were work-shopping a colleague’s story. It had been circulated to us the week before and we had all had a chance to read it and offer our responses. The author joined in the discussion quite freely and the conversation was in depth and very pointed.

Without giving away any intimate details, I believe that the general points that arose in the discussion are well worth opening up to a wider audience. I will leave them in question form.

1. The narrative voice: Is it stronger than the voice of the characters and should it be? To what extent should the narrator dominate the story? Should the characters have pride of place? How do we seek and find a balance between narrator and characters, especially when the author’s own voice, in real life and literature, can be so strong?

2. The focal point: What is the focal point of the story? Should it have a single focus, a single slug line, a sentence that can sum it up? Is it about the conflict between two characters in a dysfunctional marriage? Is it about a tit-for-tat relationship with secrecy and revenge at the heart of it? How should the story be focused so the spotlight falls on one of these elements or highlights the potential conflict among all three?

3. The characters: Is the narrator a third character? Are the two main characters evenly balanced? Do they have to be likeable? Are they likeable? Can they be strengthened? If they are not likeable, can their unlike-ability be softened in any way so the reader draws closer to them? Can the points of conflict between them be sharpened or focused more clearly? Should the story be lengthened to include more background detail? Should it be shortened and made more incisive? Are there non sequiturs, false trails, red herrings that can be eliminated?

4. Dialog: Is the dialog genuine and believable? Do people really speak like this? Is the couple communicating or are they merely talking at each other without listening? Is their lack of communication, via the dialog, a key component of the story? Can this lack of communication be strengthened? Is their language unique to them, each of them? Are the ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ necessary when there are only two characters? If their speech and points of view are distinctive then dialogic pointers are not necessary, surely? All ‘saidisms’ should be removed, ‘she squeaked, he sighed’, shouldn’t they? Such ‘saidisms’ can be paraphrased within the text, can’t they?

5. Punctuation: Does the punctuation need a copy editor to sort it out? Does the punctuation enhance the meaning or confuse the reader? Do the traditional forms of punctuation hold good in the age of texting and twitter and tweet? Surely the punctuation should be standardized, possibly for the narrator and the two main characters? Standardized, perhaps, but according to whose rules? Or does the narrative create its own rules?

6. Dramatic Irony: How much does each character know? How much should the reader know? How do we let vital information become available to the reader while keeping it secret from the other characters? Do we achieve this via dialog? How do the various narrators work in this context omniscient, narrator as character, narrator with partial knowledge etc?

Two writing tips:

1. Stay in the mood: We work hard as authors to create a mood for our characters and our readers. Once we have created that mood, we must stay in it. Anything that breaks the audience’s attention must be avoided: punctuation mistakes, spelling mistakes, authorial intervention, ‘saidisms’, sudden changes in character, words that are obtrusive … avoid too, those little jokes that we love so much, especially if they do not contribute to the story  … they distract the audience from what’s happening … avoid our favorite repeated phrases … non-essentials must be left out … get in the mood … stay in the mood.

2. Read your work aloud: This is one of the best ways of concentrating on what you are writing. Two techniques: (1) record your work, close your eyes, play it back and really listen to it, perhaps more than once. This allows you to focus on rhythm, structure, and movement. (2) Read your work aloud as you are writing and after you have written. For me, in poetry, this includes the finger-tapping, syllable counting, rhythmic mode — a sílabas contadas, as Fray Luis de León, one of Spain’s most rhythmic writers, used to say.

At the end of the session, the author responded to the commentaries and then invited each of the work-shoppers to offer a condensed suggestion in a line or two. My own went like this: “You have heard thirty-five to forty different suggestions. You are the author, only you. You most focus clearly on your story and choose those recommendations that suit you best and move your story forward in the way that you want.”

Waking in the early hours of the night to converse with the Harvest moon that still drifted through the night sky, the following very different thoughts came to me. They come from my long-term experiences with work-shopping, schools of creative writing, and editors who decide what parts of an author’s work they will publish, and then ONLY with appropriate and editor-approved changes.

Whose poem is it anyway?
When we workshop a poem or a short story and
when we receive all this feedback,
what is our role?
Is the poem or the story still ours?
Whose story is it?

  1. Editors.

            My first editors insisted on re-writing my texts. They wanted me to say and write things this way, not that way. “Here’s your poem,” one wrote back. “Resubmit it like this and I’ll publish it.” It wasn’t the way I wanted it, but I did what he said and my poem was published. House editorial style: same thing. Whose poem is it? Mine, because it bears my name … but did I want it written that way? Good question.

2. El Poeta-Pueblo.

I have mentioned this concept before. It comes from Ramón Menéndez Pidal who suggested that in the best oral tradition Medieval and Renaissance Spanish poetry passed through the mouths of a series of anonymous polishers who chose the best verses and strengthened them as they went along. If the poet is the people, whose poem is it? I think of soccer chants, bumper stickers, certain repeated jokes, especially old jokes that are recycled again and again with merely a change of victim. So much is in the air, so much is heard, over-heard, half-heard … where does creativity start and where does it end?

3. Originality, Copyright, and the Right to Copy.

Some of the thoughts expressed above question the meaning of ownership, originality, creativity, and copyright. How original are we? Who actually creates the ideas in the film based on the book based on the idea based on the suggestion of the anonymous voice overheard on the commuter train? When we work in a workshop, to whom does the end result belong? When we work in a creative writing program with tutors and commentators and a thesis director who rewrites, corrects, and approves the final product, whose work is it? When we work in a team, is it the final voice that determines the final structure of the entity, that is the creator and bears the label of creativity? By extension, to what extent do we have the right to listen in, to copy, to borrow, to re-create? Is a re-creator a creator and to what extent does the re-creator really create?

Just some thoughts to share with my fictional and other friends for the joy of creation never ends — and yes, we have the right to copy (with acknowledgement), to borrow (with a tribute), to change, and shuffle, and cut … for me it’s all a form of creativity. If our friends and writing groups want to join in and help us write, then why shouldn’t they? But never forget the role of el pueblo-poeta and don’t forget to ask: whose poem is it?

Writer’s Block

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Writer’s Block

Every day, well, almost every day, I meet people who tell me that they cannot write anymore. They have abandoned their current project. They sit in their work space and stare at blank screens or empty walls. They have come face to face with the dreaded Writer’s Block.

While some consider Writer’s Block to be an actual illness, others flaunt it like a flag or a badge of honor:

“Don’t touch me — I’ve got Writer’s Block: I wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

“I’m having a bad week: I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

“Sorry, I can’t make the writer’s meeting, I’ve got Writer’s Block.”

According to Wikipedia, “Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.”

We have probably all experienced the sensation of being unable to write, unable to think, unable to continue. I have found that it happens frequently in examinations with young students whose minds suddenly go blank when faced by a white page and an awkward question. This form of Writer’s Block comes at the most unfortunate times. Students need to be switched on just when their minds switch off. And something similar happens to writers.

Examination Block can be overcome. In many cases careful preparation for an exam will reduce or eliminate examination block. These preparations may well include correct pre-examination note-taking and revision procedures, no last minute all-night study the night before the exam, a good night’s sleep, proper food, water, and appropriate physical exercises before the exam starts. All these things prepare both body and mind and free the student for that most important task: the struggle with the blank page and the awkward question.

Will a set of pre-writing preparations work for Writer’s Block?

In order to answer this question, I would rather take a different approach. Instead of seeing Writer’s Block as a physical / mental presence that stops us writing, why not look at it as an absence that can be overcome.

What can we call that absence? Personally, I look upon it as an absence of creativity. If the creativity isn’t there, then writing creatively won’t happen. So what do we do?

Let us define creativity. For me, creativity is the expression of the creative principle that dwells within all of us. It is there, within us. We may suppress it or we may let it be suppressed. We may ignore it or we may deny it: but it is still there. It is always there. Sometimes it is beaten out of us; or we think it is. But it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting to be called on. The Roman poets spoke of it as Deus est in nobis … the God that dwells within us.

Creativity, for me, is like a river that vanishes underground and then reappears: it will be back.

The most important thing in my opinion is what you do when you’re not writing, what you do when you’re faced with that wall of blackness, what you do when you stare at that blank screen and nothing makes your fingers dance on the key board.

Here’s what I do. I make up my mind not to force myself to be creative. Forget about writing. Do something else. Ignore all idea of Writer’s Block, or the End of the World, or the Imminent Disaster of not being able to write. It may take a mental effort, but forget about it.

Now do something else, something positive. Different people respond to different stimuli. Here’s what I do.

(1) I read books

I read other people in their creative moments. I love reading people who write in other languages that I speak and read, because my own mind tries to recreate their images, their stories. This re-creation is a form of creation in itself. New words, new ideas, new combinations, rise to the surface of the mind, like bubbles on a river.

(2) I color and draw

As any who have seen my drawings know, I cannot draw. However, I can take a line for a walk. And that’s what I do. Then I color the spaces I create. My friends thought I was wasting my time and I believed them until I read one of Matisse’s sayings: “My ambition: to liberate color, to make it serve both as form and content.” Voilà: I have my raison d’être. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you create a space, color and meaning rush in.

(3) I take photos

The capturing of a moment: a sunset, a new bird at the feeder, deer wandering through the garden, a black bear visiting, rain on a spider web, sunlight through a prism, a cat made out of cherry stones … the re-creation of the moment is the creation of the memory. More bubbles flow on the surface of the stream.

(4) I go for a walk, look at nature and the world around me, people too

It is incredibly important to do this. A visit to the local coffee shop, a walk around the super-market or corner store, a seat in the park on a sunny day … just be, watch, relax, look and listen, empty yourself, let the world flow back in … look at the ducks on the lake or the goldfish in the tank … more bubbles on the water, more ideas floating down the stream …

(5) I listen to music

De gustibus non disputandum … we can’t argue about taste. Where music goes, to each his or her own … the music I like fills my mind, relaxes me, flows out when it ends, takes my mind for a walk and leaves … a vacuum … into which dreams and colors, words and ideas, build like clouds …

(6) I cook

Cooking has always relaxed me. Sometimes the repeating of an old recipe helps clear my mind. Sometimes I have a need to invent something new. Hands and mind occupied, the secret, sacred underground river of creativity flows on …

(7) I sew

Last summer, an unexpected event led me to join a quilting group … oh what fun … a man quilting among a dozen women … I learned so many things … so many different ways of looking at the world … so many concepts that I would never have dreamed of on my own … Sewing runs in the family: I still have my grandfather’s sewing kit … darning and sewing needles that served him for two years before the mast … that darned his socks as he survived in the trenches of the First World War … it bears his name and I use it with pride … and what memories arise in my mind as I choose the needle … his needle … the one that will lead me into the next adventure, be it quilt, button or patch …

(8) I keep a journal

… and come hell or high water, I write in it every day and have done so since 1985. That’s 31 years during which I have scarcely missed a day. The writing maybe banal, it may be nothing but a note on the weather or a comment on a sporting event … but it’s there … a vital challenge to the idea that Writer’s Block can take me over and can win. This journal is 95% drivel … maybe more … but bobbing along the stream of words are ideas, verses, rhyme schemes, choruses, stories, flashes of inspiration, jokes, memories, magic moments, falling stars, … the secret is to catch these falling stars, to recognize these rough diamonds and to return to them and polish when the moment is ripe … and it will be, sooner or later … for bubbles are buoyant and will lift you to the stars.

(9) I believe

Through all this runs a thread of belief … belief that the black cloud of despair will not win. The Writer’s Block will go. Creativity will never be not lost. It is there, beneath the surface, always ready to be contacted, waiting to rise and take you over again. And all too soon and quite unexpectedly, one form of creativity slips into another and the creative writing (it never really went away because of the journal) comes back.

Writer’s Block: it does exist. It’s how we deal with it that’s important. Creativity rules: forget Writer’s Block and let creativity and the multiple ways back to creativity grow and flow. Sooner or later the clouds will lift, the sun will return, the block will unblock and the words will flow again.

Remember the words on the Roman sundial: Horas non numero nisi serenas … I count only the happy hours. And remember: the clouds will lift, the sun will return.

Trust me.

And believe.