Beyond Writer's Block
Point of View: Eye of the Beholder
Writing Dialogue: The Music of Speech
Character and Plot: The Cart or the Horse?
Secrets of the Short Story
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Beyond Writer's Block
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What Editors Want: Interview with Donna Ippolito
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Don't think! Write! Relax!

From time to time, every writer (or painter or dancer or musician or sculptor) hits the wall. Inspiration fails. Discouragement reigns. All efforts seem vain. The thing about writer’s block, however, is that it’s a figment. The rich world of the imagination is always there, waiting to be tapped. It’s a part of us that never sleeps and never runs out.


Take a page from Ray Bradbury's advice: Don't think! Write! Relax!


Connect with the world

Look around as well as within. Look closely at what you love. Take a walk on a rainy night and then write what you saw and felt. Eavesdrop on other people’s conversations in a restaurant or on the bus, then set down the rhythms of their speech or the secrets that lie beneath all words. Observe your cat, your dog, your bird, or your gerbil and try to capture the look in its fathomless eyes or on its inquisitive face. Capture the inimitable quality of a loved one’s least gesture, or even the way he breathes when asleep.


Let it all hang out

Much of what we call writer’s block is simply trying to edit ourselves in the first stages of writing. The early stages are NOT the time for editing, however. You want as much raw material to play with as you can generate. Some of it might look like garbage or pure blather, but you can’t be always be sure. Whether the words pour or trickle, whether they seem muddy or precious, let them come. In the early stages of writing, put on the hat of the playful, inventive, messy child. Tell yourself anything goes. Once you’ve got a nice, fat, delicious draft, then you can start picking and choosing, moving and changing, judging and discriminating, rewriting and revising.


 Put the pedal to the metal

Years back, I used writing to music as an exercise in writer’s workshops with both adults and high school students, and it’s a good one for getting in touch with your own juices. Playing instrumental music that ranged from classical to tribal drumming, the only rule I gave was that students had to keep writing no matter what. If their minds went blank, then they were to write just that--my mind is blank my mind is blank I don’t know what to write I don’t have anything to say I’ll never be a writer what’s the use and so on until something else emerged. And it will emerge if you just keep on writing through the resistance.


I don’t remember where I first heard of the technique, but I have used it in workshops with both adults and younger students. Writing to music is like the timed writing popularized by Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron. The only difference is that the length of the musical selection determines the length of the exercise. Start with shorter pieces of 5 or 10 minutes and then build up to 30 minutes or even an hour or more. Whatever emerges will not only surprise you, it will delight you.


Indulge your senses

See, hear, and sense like an animal. Animals take nothing for granted. What is the voice of the wind in the trees? Whose footsteps hurry by on a sleepless night? What is the touch of a snowflake or a drop of rain? Watching and waiting, expecting nothing, let your attention slow down to take in life moment by eternal moment, and then write about it.


Fallow to fertile

From season to season, farmers must let some fields lie fallow so that the soil can renew its strength. In the same way, when you’ve worked some idea or piece of writing to the point of exhaustion, try giving it a breather. Don’t stop working your other fields, however. Imagination needs to know you’re still there. Try the music exercise or any others suggested here or elsewhere. Or, ask yourself for a dream each night before going to sleep and then faithfully record, without judgment or expectation, what comes. Don’t, however, try to “analyze” the dreams. The idea is simply to show your willlingness to listen to the inner voice. If you’ve got more than one writing project going, turn to one of those for a time. In other words, keep the faith.


Have a heart-to-heart

Just as a single acorn contains the mighty tree, every creative seed has a life of its own. The writer, the painter, or the choreographer is the gardener. We have to do our part, and it can be a lot of work. Indeed, it often feels like blood, sweat, and tears. But if we only remember that the seed and, later, the plant is alive, we can actually engage the work in a conversation.


Here’s how it works. I once couldn’t find the ending to a short story, and a friend who taught Ira Progroff’s Intensive Journal method suggested that I “dialogue” with the story. The method consists in having and writing out an actual conversation between you and the story or the ending or the character or whatever aspect seems “blocked”. Start out by greeting each other, and don’t worry if you feel silly. Then begin to talk it over—back and forth just like any other conversation. Tell the work how you feel, but be sure to ask how it feels, how it’s doing. You probably know what you want and need, but you’ve got to ask the story (or the novel or the article or the character) what it wants or needs.


The first time I did this at my friend’s suggestion, it felt artificial, awkward, and absurd. Soon, however, the pace picked up. A conversation did ensue, and before long, the dialogue changed. Now it became the words of the story’s ending that began to flow through my pen. (Pen and paper often works best, but there’s no reason you can’t try it on the computer.) Sure, I went back and edited later, but I knew it was the exact, right ending. It was also one that had never consciously occurred to me through all previous my fits and starts.


Ask for a dream

You can also ask your dreams for help. In my dancer days, I was in the midst of choreographing a suite of seven dances. Dance is as much about structure as it is movement. I was having no problem coming up with steps and patterns, but I was somewhere in the middle of a group dance, and I had no clue where to go with it. In the midst of rehearsals and with opening night looming, I asked for a dream to guide me. Though I didn’t dream specifically of a dance, that night I did see a scene whose shapes, energy, kinetics, and flow pointed me in exactly the right direction. I still had to do the actual work of choreography, but I felt sure-footed and on the right path.


The magic door

As a teacher, I’ve learned more from my students than from any book. Once, I spent the whole day in an elementary school filling in for the art teacher. I started with a class of first-graders. We talked about magic and a secret door they would open to find some surprise. Next, they folded a large piece of paper in half. On the front they were to draw and color a door. Then they would open the door (the paper) and draw what they had magically evoked behind it.


With gleeful enthusiasm, they immediately got busy making humongous ice cream sundaes, golden rooms gleaming with crayon-yellow, alien creatures, never-before-seen vehicles, red hearts, superheroes, and even the face of a child with tears streaming from his eyes and down both sides of his body. They simply accepted the premise that they could magically and, in mere moments, evoke a surprise or a secret from within.


The rest of the classes that day were fourth- through eighth-graders. Their assignment was a self-portrait using images, colors, symbols, words or any other visual elements that expressed who they were and what they cared about. I explained that drawing skill wasn't important. Some of the “artier” ones got right to work, but the rest were stumped. No matter how many times I replied that the only “rule” was to use colors, and that they didn’t have to come up with a representational image, most of the students were “blocked”. Over and over, they asked me can I do this, can I do that? Over and over, I explained that there wasn’t a right way or a wrong way, that whatever they did was fine as long as it expressed what they cared about most from the inside.


In the end, of course, all the students managed to get something down on paper. I will always remember one drawing that showed a boyish figure with a bird perched on his right hand. Dangling from the bird’s mouth was a cigarette. I asked the student why, but he merely shrugged. And, of course, he was right. It didn’t matter. The image, as fresh as it was startling, spoke for itself.


The point of this story is that the six-year-olds had few preconceptions and could easily connect with the magical world of the imagination. Their impromptu drawings were marvelous, full of humor and vitality. The older kids, ranging from eight to thirteen years, first had to beat their heads against the idea that there were “rules” they had to follow and that even the imagination was a place where, if you weren't careful, you might fail.


Copyright 2007 by Donna Ippolito