Shayn Nicely

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Month: April, 2015

Writer’s Block and Process

I’ve been told before that my perspective of writer’s block is incorrect. I’ve been told that writer’s block is a zero energy total inability to make something happen on the page, “like depression, but for writing.” As if writing is not a part of us, but an external entity that visits itself upon us, as if the blocked writer has been dumped by the muses of old, and whether or not they return has little to do with your own effort. As if you’ve texted and texted her (mentally, of course, but not with literal words, since those have been robbed from you), and she just won’t call you back.

This definition of writer’s block doesn’t work for me. I suppose there are special cases, such as authors in solitary confinement or authors who suffer brain damage, but I don’t believe this definition is accurate for the common scenario which is titled “writer’s block,” wherein an average writer like you or me simply stares at a page for a day or two, or a month or two, as the case may be. We are people in decent health, people surrounded by inspiration whether or not we take it, people who possess the skills required to write the words, even poorly. Most people have access to lots of tools which may stimulate their creative process.

I’m not the type of person who just accepts what appears to be as fixed and divorced from me. I’m a big believer in the power of positive thought and individual effort, and in the power to control and structure your own life.

I see the craft of writing as a muscle which strengthens with direct practice, and like a muscle, you’d be surprised how strong it can become once you determine that you will meet your challenges.

From an interview featured in The Believer’s Book of Writers Talking to Writers, between Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, “I’ve found that writing novels is an all-absorbing experience–both mentally and physically–and I have to do it every day in order to keep the rhythm, to keep myself focused on what I’m doing.” (Auster) To which Lethem responded, “You’re keeping a streak going.”

Admittedly, the first thing you write coming out of a dry spell will probably be bad. As William Stafford said, “Lower your standards.”

I also highly recommend taking walks and meditation. Moments of relaxation are hugely instrumental in inspiration. While you cannot be inspired while constantly relaxed and never chipping away at that plot hole or climax or what have you, you can also not be inspired if you never stop stressing over it. So stress, stress, and then take a deep breath and walk away. Let it play idly through your thoughts and you’ll be surprised how often HUGE breakthroughs will hit mid-shower.

If there are toxic stressors in your life which you identify as cropping up between yourself and your ability to write, put tangible space between yourself and them.

A common footnote in the story of a rut is that the subject thinks about solutions, but never actually physically does anything differently.

So don’t just think about turning off your phone, or disconnecting your Internet, or going on that walk, or spitting out that opening paragraph you just know isn’t going to sing and sparkle the way you hope. I know athletic footwear never wrote a best-selling novel, but in times of despair, I turn to the words of NIKE, goddess of victory:

JUST DO IT.

Authorial Distance and Disconnection (Or Filters)

Authorial distance is a judgment call that a self-aware writer makes early in the scene. I was once told to imagine the narrator as a camera, and that analogy works well for me.

Some scenes are better served by a panoramic view. Perhaps you want to capture the mood of an evening across an entire town; you’d seek unifying activity amongst the myriad subjects, so as not to focus too closely on any individual (“the women lounged with their paperback heartthrobs”), use a “soft lens” to convey more general detail, and, as a narrator, you’d probably be inclined toward omniscience. I’ve rarely used this method, but Kurt Vonnegut is one my favorite authors, and he had a marked distance to his prose. For all its beauty, it was distinctly outside of the character, and at times, it was so distant it could gloss over the entire planet.

Comparatively, there is the opposite end of the spectrum, where the camera is more of a chip implanted into the brain of the main character, and your reader only perceives their experiences as viscerally and intimately as possible. With this authorial distance, or lack thereof, you’d likely employ stream-of-consciousness to relay the natural movement of thought, openly delve into raw styles seldom explored in fiction, and convey sensation as it is experienced firsthand. (“Son of a bitch! Cody’s hand flexed, stinging, and the pot of mushrooms clanged onto the kitchen linoleum.”) You’d consider your prose to double as the eye of the character, so if they’re looking at something, you’re describing it without noting that they’re looking at it. For example, “I sat down beside him. His sneakers were red and our hands were too close.” That tells you a lot without telling you that this character is looking down, or telling you how uncomfortable they are.

If you move instead to describing the eyes of the perspective (“My eyes flash from our hands–too close–to our shoes–too close”), it doesn’t necessarily lose its impact or significance but it does move the camera just outside of their body.

There are plenty of steps in between, though. It just depends on what type of story you want to tell. If you’re starting an action/adventure/mystery with a single perspective, you’ll probably want to nestle up as close as possible, but in a political drama rife with intrigues, you’re better served to move from one event of consequence to the next, regardless of which characters are involved, so your reader is overwhelmed by the amount of betrayal, so many other characters painfully unaware!

All of this is fine because it’s all conscious, and regardless, it doesn’t actually hinder the storytelling. Your plot and characters may have been better suited to a different method, but it’s really just another way of telling the same story, and a good story is… well… good. There is something like authorial distance but not, because it places an unintentional disconnection, and the disconnection isn’t between the reader and the character but between the reader and the narrator. These are filters, and one of the main reasons I always recommend rereading one’s work, preferably aloud. When a writer uses a filter, a throwaway verb phrase, it places a small but vital measure between the reader and the story, usually “filtered” through the main characters themselves. For example, “She noticed that the mail still hadn’t been opened.” Now consider: “There sat the mail. Still on the counter. Unopened.” Hunt down those meaningless filters and cut them out, placing your reader directly into the story rather than caught in the intermediary of the character. “He smelled the exhaust lacing the air, but he couldn’t make out the plates.” Compare to: “Exhaust laced the air. Its license plate shrank and blurred.”