A writer friend is helping me out by checking a Spanish translation of my work. I asked how I could repay the favour.
“Encouragement!” she said. “I’m blocked. So many false starts, I need help to get moving again.”
Blocks happen to all of us, sometimes caused by rejection or criticism, sometimes because we need to top up the creative reservoir. Advice often falls into the ‘Stand back’, ‘Take a break’, ‘Do something else’ category. Yes, that works.
But sometimes we get blocked because we’re looking at the woods and not seeing the trees. So get closer.
When I hit a wall, I stop trying to envisage the forest and get right down to twig level. I spend some time doing the equivalent of staring at a blade of grass. I’ve collected a series of exercises from all over and this is how I get past my blocks. After I’ve forced myself to complete a few of these, I return to my ms with an attitude I can only describe as Hell Yeah!
They aren’t for everyone – depends on what the block is – but it might give you a few ideas. Here are ten exercises which have worked for me:
Roll the dice. To generate some writing, start with www.storycubes.com/products. You could use cut out images from a magazine just as easily. Apply genres – whatever images you turn up, you have to fit them into crime/erotica/fairytale… WHY? Remind yourself of the childlike joy of just making shit up.
The Dürrenmatt Exercise. Write the first 250 words of a short story, but write them in one sentence. Make sure that the sentence is grammatically correct and punctuated correctly. WHY? Same reason as you do yoga – stretch.
Eavesdrop. Sit in a restaurant or a crowded area and write down the snippets of conversation you hear. Listen to how people talk and what words they use. Practise finishing their conversations. Write your version of what comes next. Match their style and try to capture those voices on the page. WHY? Break old habits, learn new ones.
Play with structure. Find a descriptive passage you admire (not from your own work) and revise all the sentences. Write the passage using all simple sentences (no coordination, no subordination); write the passage using all complex-compound sentences; write the passage using varying sentence structure. WHY? The more ways you can think to play with sentence structure, the more you will become aware of how sentence structure helps to create pacing, alter rhythm, offer delight.
Focus on verbs. Find a passage that you admire (about a page of prose) and examine all of the verbs in each sentence. Are the “active,” “passive,” “linking?” If they are active, are they transitive or intransitive? Are they metaphorical (Mary floated across the floor)? What effects do verbs have on your reading of the passage? Now take a passage of your own writing and revise all of the verbs in it. Do this once making all the verbs active, once making all the verbs passive. Then try it by making as many verbs as possible metaphorical. WHY? Make words work harder.
Work on word choice. Trying rewriting this extract using no adjectives or adverbs. Not just taking them out but choosing more powerful nouns, verbs, constructions to convey the same concepts. WHY? Read it and you tell me. (Lest you think I made this up, it comes from Kay Burley’s Betrayal.)
Leaning on the edge of the enormous walnut and leather inlay desk he now slowly began to unbutton her silk blouse … Isla was mightily relieved she had always heeded her mother’s guidance of wearing good underwear, though that advice had no doubt been for other reasons.” It’s La Senza, since you ask.” He instantly turned and swept away every bit of clutter from his leather-topped desk, knocking over a Waterford Crystal water jug in his urgency, which smashed into tiny shards as it crashed to the ground.
At that exact moment, Julian was expertly using his silver tongue to offer intense gratification to Sally as he held on firmly to her taut, tanned thighs, tightly gripped around his handsome face. Lithe and muscular, he effortlessly lifted her from the bed and onto his broad shoulders. Sally felt all the excitement and exhilaration of a fairground ride as he continued to offer intense pleasure before she was finally sated and he lowered her gently back onto the round bed.
Wear other shoes. Remember an old argument you had with another person. Write about the argument from the point of view of the other person. Remember that the idea is to see the argument from their perspective, no your own. WHY? To understand voice and perspective and flex your imagination.
The secret subtext. Write a dramatic scene between two people in which each has a secret and neither of them reveals the secret to the other or to the reader. WHY? To appreciate the power of the unsaid.
“Body English”. In his book on writing, “The 3 A.M. Epiphany,” Brian Kiteley suggests an exercise on paralinguistics. Write a conversation that takes place with no words. Kiteley recommends that it might be easiest to write from the point of view of an observer watching two people. Write only about their movements, gestures and positions. WHY? Challenge your reliance on dialogue.
The Eliot/Gardner Killer Exercise. This exercise is quite possibly the most difficult, demanding and important exercise a writer can ever do. T. S. Eliot coined the phrase “objective correlative”: rendering the description of an object so that the emotional state of the character is revealed without ever telling the reader what that emotional state is or what has motivated it.
John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States, developed the following exercise:
A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man’s point of view without telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odours? Colours? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description. WHY? Because it calls on everything you’ve got.
Lastly, I’ll quote Anne Enright on the subject of blocks.
Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.