Sometimes writer’s block transcends wood pulp.
A local newspaper (The Nelson County Times) recently ran a feature story on a woodworker, Debbie Ballowe of Nellysford, Virginia, who makes scrollsawed ornaments out of local hardwoods. She complained that “I sometimes get writer’s block, where I have a pattern I want to do, but I can’t find the piece of wood I like. I feel like my artistry is in the cutting and finishing, but also trying to find the right wood for the right pattern…. I’m not painting it, so I can’t get things exactly where I want, but there are times where you see a knot just where it should be.”
Her secret is to have faith in her woodpile, which eventually reveals the right piece. For writers, it’s having faith that your toolbox of techniques and forms will tell you what to do and how, eventually.
[Know any other forms of writer’s block, and how to solve them?]
Sometimes writer’s block transcends wood pulp.
I’ve just returned from teaching writing workshops on a three-week Caribbean cruise. I found myself surrounded by memoirists who somehow couldn’t start their memoirs. They seemed to have a memoir hovering somewhere in their future plans, but nobody was writing one.
Writers in my sessions asked me to add a section on memoirs. I asked my fellow voyagers in table conversations why they weren’t writing memoirs, and kept getting the same answer: “I’m not important.” Notice the wording: “I’m not important,” not “I’m not that important.” And the people saying it were mostly accomplished professionals.
I did some informal interviewing to find out what they meant. Most of the men said they didn’t have time. But the women, without exception, said they had been carefully taught not to take themselves seriously, never to think of themselves as important or even interesting. One quoted the Russian proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
One of my favorite writer friends, Jim Nicholson, used to write a daily 18-inch feature obituary on an ordinary person chosen at random. I asked him, “If you pick subjects at random, how often do you fail?” “Never,” he replied. “Everybody’s interesting.”
“Everybody’s interesting” became the motto of the workshops, conversations, and coaching sessions. So I taught them how to write memoirs, starting on the cruise. Here’s what I said:.
First, you have to overcome a disparity in scale: little bitty you against a book-length writing job. Writing a memoir can seem like scaling the Matterhorn, especially for someone who hasn’t written anything since leaving school. So I told them to write just one anecdote, preferably a funny one from their early lives. Some said they couldn’t, so I asked them to tell me one. And they did, and then they wrote it, and others liked it, and they were launched. Writing little anecdotes is fun, like telling jokes, and contagious.
Second, you have to lower your standards. Your first attempts at anything don’t have to be good. You’ll learn more if they aren’t. Beginners have a license to write badly. More importantly, they can ask for help. And the help they need is a friend asking them “What works?” and “What needs work?”
Third, you just get it down, without worrying about spelling or usage or correctness. There’s no teacher and no grading when you write for yourself. And you can get it right later, after it says what you want to say.
Fourth, you have to shut out imagined reactions from your family. I warned everyone that inevitably, something you write in a memoir will piss off somebody, probably a relative, especially your mother. As you write anything, never think about what others will say; you have to shut up that voice in your head that makes you timid. I manage my demon by telling myself after every sentence, “This’s just a draft, Don.”
Finally, as my pal Roy Peter Clark says, you get started by putting your butt in your chair and moving your fingers on the keys.
That’s it. It’s that easy. Forget about yourself to write about yourself.
[If you’re writing a memoir, how did you start?]
In my previous post, I talked about epiphanies, sudden realization of something you knew but didn’t know. You can make them happen. I learned this technique from Chip Scanlan at the Poynter Institute, who used it for a different purpose and in a different form.
You need four sheets of paper and a pencil. You write a partial prompting sentence at the top, such as “My Z made me Y…” or “I didn’t know that X….” Then you fill in the blanks (Z and Y, or X), and continue to write without raising the pencil. You scribble at top speed, never backing up, never correcting, never reading, never worrying about spelling or grammar or sense. You keep this up until you run out of steam, usually halfway down the page. Then you stop, stand up, walk around, shake your bootie, and sit down again.
Then, without reading what you wrote, you repeat the whole process, starting with the same partial sentence with blanks, and scribbling non-stop, borderline mindless, until you run out again. Then, without reading, you repeat the process twice more, or until you write to the bottom of the page. Then and only then, you read what you’ve written on the final page.
When I first tried this technique, I discovered I’d written, “I’m glad my father died.” I didn’t know that until that moment. Yesterday, I led a stuck writer through this process, and she discovered what she was failing to say was not at all what she wanted to say. It’s a quick and dirty coaching technique.
You can direct your epiphany a little by slanting your opening sentence fragment. Lately, I’ve wondered why I could never sing as an adult. (I can’t even hum!) So my opener could be something like this: “I sang as a child until ….”
N.B. Sometimes this magic doesn’t work.
[Ever experience an epiphany by writing?]
I’m teaching writing on a Caribbean cruise off the coast of Mexico. (Tough gig, I know.) Yesterday I had an epiphany right in the middle of teaching a session on memoir writing. I told the participants that gathering information for their memoirs would show them things about themselves they didn’t know. “Memoirs teach you who you are.” And I told an anecdote about my late father, a shy man of few words.
He never talked about what he did as a naval officer in World War II, but I’d gathered bits and pieces over the years and put together my own picture of what he did. I knew he helped develop the airborne radar used in hunter-killer teams. One plane (the Hunter) used radar to find enemy submarines, and the other plane (the Killer) carried depth charges to drop on the sub. When he was dying, I cornered him in his hospital bed and interviewed him about what he really did. He couldn’t escape me, and for once in his life, talked at length. I assumed, since he was an electrical engineer, that he had helped develop the radar itself. Actually he figured out how to train flying officers to operate the radar and find the sub. Later he led a group of radar specialists, and flew missions himself. I confirmed all this later in his service records.
And just as I finished telling this anecdote, I had an epiphany. I had never seen the connection between what he was and did (an engineer) and what I became and did (a teacher-scholar). But as I told the story to my participants, it hit me. He created new knowledge, recast it so others could learn it, and taught it to smart people so they could act on it. Which is exactly what I’ve done my whole life, and what I’m am doing right now on this cruise, and what I’m doing in this blog post.
[Ever had an epiphany while telling a story?]
Readers read along until something jolts their attention, such as a misspelled word or an incorrect fact. They continue moving their eyes over the following words, but they’re not paying attention. They’re thinkink about the problematic word, just as you’re now fretting about my misspelling of “thinking” at the beginning of this sentence.
Sometimes you have to include something that’ll jar the reader. Writers tend to explain it later, or just let readers bump on it. The better way is to signal the reader that something striking is about to happen. Even better, disarm the bump at the same time.
Here’s a model of what I’m suggesting, in an article about caffeine:
Hollingsworth compiled his studies in a 1912 book that used a contemporary spelling for the substance: “The Influence of Caffein on Mental and Motor Efficiency.”
The author, Murray Carpenter, warns us that an odd spelling of caffeine is about to startle us, and we don’t bump.
(Do you have any examples of handling this problem well or badly?)
Most writers have a favorite writing place: my study, an office, a sunny glade. But some writers take it one step further. They have a writing spot that moves.
Don Murray, the first writing coach, wrote as he drove his van. He dictated books to his wife Minnie Mae, who sat at a portable desk in the back seat.
Liu Ming, who teaches feng shui and Chinese medicine in Oakland, built an eight-foot cube on wheels in his 1,100 square-foot loft. The cube contains a bedroom, a meditation area, and his study.
He says he “added wheels for feng shui purposes. Now that it is portable, I can spin it on an axis, I can point my head and point my desk in different compass directions for different projects. If I am writing something and feel blocked, I can get up and move the room.”
He “wanted to design the work space so that it could also turn — turn it toward the light on a sunny day, or in a different mood, turn it to the wall and meet a deadline.”
He can even change the view, from downtown Oakland to “the hills and the sunrise.”
Now you might think that having a custom splendid view might distract you from writing, but remember that Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux for inspiration, and Wordworth made a career of writing about emotions occasioned by landscape.
George Bernard Shaw anticipitated Mr. Liu when he built his revolving writing hut at Shaw’s Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England. It turned on a track to follow the path of the sun. Not a bad technique for the British Isles.