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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Writer's Block: The Dam of Creativity

From Henry Harvey Books.com
 
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only.
 
Every writer, whether accomplished Pulitzer laureate or casual blogger knows intimately the frustration of sitting in front of the computer (or pad and paper) burning with the desire to put words to paper, but cursed with a stubbornly blank brain. It is the curse of this art. One can never predict its onset, but you can almost guarantee a visit from this demon at that moment when a deadline is staring you in the face.
 
There are two basic types of writer's block.  One involves having that juicy idea trying to push it's way out of the brain.  The other is that complete blank best articulated by that oh-so-familiar Windows alert:  "Error 404:  File not found."

According to recent research, there is a part of the brain called the corpus callosum.  This connects the two lobes of the brain, and is thicker in the brains of people who are creative types. The thicker the corpus callosum, the more effective the brain is at synchronizing activities, therefore enhancing the ability to be creative.  Supposedly, the corpus callosum is always the same size.  But every writer will swear on a stack of thesauruses that there are times when the lobal bridge drops its gates completely.
 
For a writer to be successful, it will be necessary to develop strategies to overcome the block.
 
A tour of the Internet turned up dozens of ideas on how to get past the block. I chose the ones I felt were more realistically effective.
 
The first step (and the most important) is to recognize that moment when that virtual cube of granite thunks down upon your desk.  There will always be those moments when a writer searches frantically for a particular word or turn of phrase to best illustrate the point being made.  These are ephemeral momentary interruptions.  But when the ideas come to a halt, or the mind goes completely blank, it's time to act.
 
Don't panic.  Tying your brain up in stressful knots is not likely to help.
 
Get caffeinated.  While I'm the last one to endorse using chemicals to poke the brain, there are times when a cup of coffee or can of soda provides just enough of a spark to light the fires once again.  Also, you might consider having a snack, since low blood sugar and hunger fatigue are notoriously deleterious to creativity.
 
If there is a "have-to-do" intruding on your conscience, go take care of it. Vacuum, put a load in the wash, run the errand, take care of those guilt trips and free yourself.


Go for a walk, jog, run, swim.  Stir up your blood and get everything flowing again.
 
Change your environment.  Take your laptop or tablet to a coffee shop, bistro, or restaurant.  Spread a blanket on the grass in the park, or grab a table at the library.  Changing your surroundings can have a positive effect on imagination.
 
Don't get comfy.  While I don't want you to write in pain, getting too comfortable will eventually put you to sleep.  Creativity requires an edge of sorts.
 
Turn off the TV or radio; unplug the iPod, or anything else that may be a source of distraction.
 
Write something else first, like a grocery list, or a love letter, or a note to your mother.  Will it sell?  Nope.  But at least you're writing.  And that can open the flow to other thoughts.
 
If you're still stuck, shut down the computer and go do something enjoyable or inspiring.  Go shopping, or take a motorcycle ride.  Visit a friend or take your dog for a walk.  (I once tried to take my cat for a walk.  Bad idea.)  Look for different kinds of inspiration. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I would visit the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville.  Thinking about those heroic people, and the larger impact of that day provided me a valuable perspective.
 
Those are helpful for those frustrating times in the moment.  But there are other things to think about, ideas that can change the way you look at the writing process altogether.
 
For a number of years, I was writing columns for two newspapers.  Their proximity to each other mandated separate pieces, so I was required to write two columns each week.  Those were great times.  I had a seemingly endless well of ideas and never missed a deadline, nor gave my readers (or my editors) short shrift.  When we moved to Northern Virginia, I lost those gigs, and therefore the urgency.  My productivity has dropped off accordingly. It would seem that, as much as I find them uncomfortable, deadlines are critical for creative writing.  Don't be afraid to set them, and once established, keep to them.  Try setting a schedule.  I know this seems counterintuitive, like taking the "free" out of "free-lance," but you might find that enforced structure the thing you need to push forward.
 
Lower your expectations.  My particular trap is to try to make my first draft the final draft. I have never written anything that didn't require revision and review.  I have to keep myself from shoehorning the editing phase into the initial draft.  Don't sweat grammar, or structure, or flow.  James Thurber once said, "Don't get it right.  Get it written."
 
Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette in an interview talked about a thing she calls "stream of consciousness." She sits down at a piano and begins to play, singing whatever words come into her head.  Thus freed from the bonds of structure, ideas flow freely.  Most of them are nonsense and are discarded.  But what emerges from those periods of brainstorming are those nuggets of genius for which she has become justifiably famous. 
 
This kind of thing works for writers as well.  I know it's an irreplaceable part of my process.  By allowing all those ideas the freedom to be aired out, you can more easily find those bits and pieces that will become a fully developed essay, or the basis for a book-length story.  Don't do rules in your first drafts; use instinct.  Don't get picky or judgmental.  Author Margaret Atwood said, "If I waited for perfection, I'd never write a word."  When looking for buried treasure, the first tool is, after all, not a brush, but a backhoe.
 
I carry a small notebook called a "Moleskin" everywhere I go.  Ideas are ephemeral creatures.  When they flit in out of the blue, they must be recorded for later exploration. I will attest to you that those snippets will fly away just as quickly as they arrived, never to be seen again.  This kind of idea journal will be of inestimable value.  Just remember, when these moments of genius hit you in the middle of the night, write carefully, lest they end up utterly unreadable scribbles in the light of day.
 
Don't fear mistakes.  That's what the editing phase is for.  Fear of messing up is one of the most profound blocks between humans and any form of accomplishment.  You must learn to write with courage.
 
And don't ever underestimate the power of thoughtful reflection.  Sometimes, the most creative thing you can do is stare at the wall for an hour or two.
 
Passion can be violent and messy.  It's certainly not neat, prim, and clean.  When you have a burning idea inside your head or heart, give in to those emotions and capture them on paper, however raw and unfinished they may be. Willingly opening your heart and daring to be strident is a freeing experience.
 
Everyone is different, and some require an external structure to function.  Draft and use an outline and story treatment.  It will help you stay on track and prevent gallivanting off on unproductive tangents.  But a story is a fluid animal.  If you find your tale developing in different directions, have the courage to head down those uncharted paths.
 
Be flexible.  Most authors will tell you that novels are rarely written in chronological order.  If you want to skip to the big battle or the climactic love scene, go ahead.  This can help you see more clearly the roadmap that led your characters to that particular moment.
 
One of the most important things in any endeavor is to apply yourself.  Working out of your home, it can be too easy to give in to "Hakuna Matata," or "Mañana."  Any work, and free-lance writing is work, involves commitment and discipline.  Setting a specific period of time each day for writing, and keeping to that schedule, will help your creative juices to flow.  Deadlines will also provide the urge to press on to completion.

Writing is challenging.  It can be hard, dirty, sweaty, nasty work.  But if you push through the tough times, if you keep the discipline, and the promise you made to yourself, then success will rise in joyful brilliance like the dawn of a new day.
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