Monday, October 14, 2013


“I had to dream awake”
         -The Frames
Writing is a mental game. Whether you pile up a lot of interesting words and let that guide parts of your story, or you construct a moment and hunt for the words to do it justice, in the end we're still just talking about a lot of words. And yet anybody who has ever started a serious writing project knows the pain of staring empty-headed at an equally empty page. It doesn't matter if you're on page 600 or page 1, this is a very real and daunting challenge that can slow the whole process down to a soul crushing crawl. So what the hell do you do to get yourself out of it?

Try this. Stop, relax, and think, but go somewhere else to do it.

'Prewriting' is an absolute misnomer. Most people seem to think you prewrite before you begin a project, and then you sit down without ever looking back and fritter away until the thing is done. I don't even think of it as prewriting, I think of it as sketching. Dry on ideas before, during, or after a draft? Sit down, let your mind breathe, and sketch a bit.

Here's what I do. I turn my computer off and I go sit down somewhere else. This is a really basic mental trick. The goal is to break the unfocused, no ideasy, falling feeling I get sitting in my writing chair without writing for too long. I have a pad and a pen with me. I have a pen because I'm not going to be erasing anything. If I write something dumb (often I insist on it), I can just scratch it out. I want to work dirty here. This is me kicking around in my workshop. Anyway, writing is actually the last thing on my mind. I'm sitting down to think. We all start writing because we tire of only day dreaming, or having thoughts pop through our head like sparks form a downed power line. Well, this little process is a return to form. Its just a bit of directed day dreaming.

Thomas Edison used to do this same sort of exercise to work his way through problems and come up with new inventions. He used to sit with two tin pans on the floor and ball bearing in his hands. He would relax, clear his head out, quiet down. Then he would start turning over whatever he had laying around in his brain. If he started to drift off, the ball bearings would drop into the pans and wake him up. So there he would be, hopefully with a clear head and maybe a new idea. I think Edison's routine was a little more meditative than I'm suggesting, but it is equally as apt, and probably worth practicing.

Start asking yourself some questions and feel your way around a few answers. There's no stakes here, you're just sketching, so anything is fair game. Sound it out. Short term, long term, it doesn't matter. Make a few choices, follow the line of thought, and if you don't like where it leads, cross that one off and start in on another, stealing any of your own ideas and mixing them up any which way you like. Don't be afraid to change your mind. Write a bunch of words down about how a scene should feel, or a setting, or a character. Which words stick? If you get some lines that feel right as you build a particular scene in your mind, jot those down and keep thinking. Stay focused. The point is to let your mind range, but not wander.

Now that you've got a few ideas you like, and a better sense of where you're going, at least for the moment, you should feel more confident sitting down at the keyboard. Now just write it out, and know if it doesn't land quite right, you can just revise it later. Tune up the sketch, yeah? Better by degrees.  

Try it.

In reference to today's quote, if you haven't already, you should really get to know Glen. Seriously.

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