Writing Reality: Fighting the Block

21/08/2013 at 13:11 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s the head ‘flu we all suffer at some point or another. Symptoms may differ from person to person, and I wholly believe that – like ‘flu – there are different strains of writer’s block.

So when it hits, I’ll step back and analyse. Break things down to Where and When and How. Was it a character’s lack of depth that snarled me up, an inability to find their voice? A scene falling flat? Or perhaps it’s other, extraneous details preying on my mind, so that writing simply has to fall as a priority?

If it’s the latter, outside of what I can control, then I’ll allow myself leeway. We all should. Life is full of its pressure points, and that’s not to say that anything outside of writing, is an unnecessary burden. Far from it. Our external lives must balance our internal literary lives, to keep us whole. Too much of either, and we’ll still fall prey to the Block.

Make a point of prioritizing. Only you know what is most important in your life; no one has the right to question your lack or surplus of output, unless you have made it clear you are responsible for others’ needs and cares. Then feelings must come first, the outside world taking precedence over imaginary ones.

Believe me, this is hard to admit to myself, let alone advise it. Writing for me is the safe-guard against internal inertia, the salmon-leap of serotonin, which I run parallel with a bloody good workout, or sushi for dinner. But it is a solo project; it doesn’t take other’s feelings or needs into account. So if a more pertinent issue crops up, kicking my creative self into orbit, I’ve learned to wait until said issues have been dealt with; until I can focus again. When that colourful ball of creativity drops back, I’m ready for the catch.

Sometimes, what’s needed is a a reaffirmation of Self. Learning again what and who your influences are. In this sense, I go back to basics when writer’s block – of any variety – hits.

Past Influences

If you have a library pass, exploit it. Take out old favourites from your childhood days, the stories that sang to you with vivid colours, impressing on your mind the formulative images that would sew the seeds of creativity. Don’t be ashamed to refer back to these little gems; they were the building blocks of your writing career. I make a point each year, of rereading every Beatrix Potter story. Revisiting those beautiful pictures, in juxtaposition with often dark tales spun of gentle words, takes me back to when my mind was first sparked with ideas.

If you still have the beloved, battered copies from your own childhood, so much the better. Thumb fondly through those pages, and revisit those precious moments when you were read to, or snuggled in some cozy corner of a rainy afternoon. When you first felt the stirrings of a writer’s desire to emulate.

Alternative Courses

While in the library, make a point of visiting the reference section. I can’t extol enough the wonders of curling up in a corner with an Encyclopedia or book of photography, flicking through facts and prints. I personally favour collections of abandoned industries, derelict houses – nature reclaiming what was taken, to present starkly poignant mindscapes. These can also be found online:

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Picture credit: Francesco Mugnai

Look at these pictures long enough, and images start to leap out. Stories begin to walk through the mind, faint at first, growing stronger.

Look up natural history, local history – world-changing events. Twist circumstances in your mind. Steampunk is an excellent example of the what if genre, a web filled with alternative strands.

Visit sites like Etsy.com, to find examples of steampunk paraphernalia. I get a creative headspin just poring through the amazing creations of featured artists. If you’re going to borrow an inspirational point for a plot, character or scene, do make sure to refer back to source, with a dropped link and perhaps an email-request to the relevant artist. Also, be aware that many libraries withhold the right to check out reference books, so make sure you have your own recording equipment to hand, for taking notes.


Interact with others. Try not to make it too obvious what you’re after, which is Live Inspiration. Listen carefully to anecdotes told down the pub; keep a keen ear open for strangers’ talk, if you’re barflying. Go to social scenes where one of your characters might put in an appearance; if you really feel like a bit of method-writing, dress like them too. Put yourself in their shoes / slippers / hooves, whatever fits. I make a point of recording fairytale snippets that come to mind, in a journal supposedly kept by one of my novel’s protagonists. Because her diary is a cornerstone of the plot, I embellish the one I have to hand with cut-outs from magazines, of dark leafy places and twisting brambles, thunder-struck skies and stormy seas. These images suit Siobhan’s personality; they are what she would surround herself with. In turn, it puts me in her mindframe to walk outside late at night, to follow cats around corners. I then rattle off quick blog entries while still inside her mind, such as this, to refer back to when stuck for a song, or a thought.

Talk to older members of your family about distant relatives, or about their own youth. I personally love nothing more than to sit in my Nanna’s kitchen while she sets the table for dinner, listening to her stories from growing up as an orphan in Newcastle, with a stern Victorian grandma and the fallout from WWII. She tells me about rationing, about making-do and playing outside all day; about the resultant scrapes she and her playmates got into. About the day-to-day bravery and stoicism of the local coal miners and shipbuilders, from which I’m descended. So many pockets of time, inspiration waiting to be found.

Echoing the greats

Hunter S Thompson had a fabulous method of refreshing his senses with old inspirations – he “used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way.” Open up copies of your favourite books, and try it yourself. Find the rhythm of sentence structure, the black humour, the gorgeous metaphors that first struck you, and inspire you still. Rewrite them to feel where that author was coming from, what made them choose to write in this certain way – how can it benefit your own style?

Look to TSR’s Dragonlance saga, as an example of what might be born when the creative input of others is put to innovative use. Beginning life as an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign, written and designed by authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, it is still one of the most popular fantasy series in print. The character Raistlin Majere is famously cited as Terry Phillip’s creation, with the latter putting on a hissing voice full of bitter cynicism, which would become the mage’s trademark. A character was reborn from the barest threads of an idea, into a man filled with twisting ambition and desperate pathos.

If you’ve got the guts, ask open-minded friends to assist in discovering the hidden nuances of your characters and/or narrative structure. Have them read lines aloud; encourage them to put on voices, to branch out in ways they feel are applicable to a scene or personality. Jot down everything, or better yet record it. In the meantime, have a bloody good laugh, while finding reality inside your characters.

Stream of Consciousness (AKA fuck linearity)

Another tactic I like to use is stream-of-consciousness music-writing. My personal method involves a little alcohol to loosen inhibitions, to let thoughts freefall, but it’s not mandatory. Just put yourself into a solitary environment, where you can find internal quiet.

This is where listening to lyrics is useful, as opposed to when writing in earnest, when they may seep through to permeate what you’re trying to write. In this case, you want that to happen. I’ll let the message of the artist hangnail in my mind, turning up fresh inspiration with each second my fingers blur. I won’t let myself pause for breath, or raise my eyes to edit what’s been written.

Become heedless of time, word counts, genre and characterization; of such tedious things as narrative and plot. This is freefall writing, letting the mind go wild. Whether it ends up in a manuscript afterwards is irrelevant. This is You, upending your mind and everything it holds; whatever emotions bind you at the time.

This entry was the result of a recent stream-writing episode.

You’ll know yourself when it’s time to stop, to analyse. There may be lines of dialogue or internal monologue; there may be the sparks that will set an stagnating story ablaze with colour.

It’s about allowing your mind to feel unfettered by choice, by fear of responsibility. It’s about relearning the basics that got you started on this wild road in the first place, full of its tangled lines and open fields and dark thorns.
It’s about this:

 photo AP_Blog_CapoteQuote_zps1c881245.jpg

Finding the beauty and power in words, and letting them come back to you of their own accord.

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